As a native speaker of English, it is almost immediately obvious to me when a speaker is Native American or Black. I find the difference is most obvious in men, I find, but even setting aside dialectical differences, I could easily tell apart a Black woman and a White woman.

In North America, these races are often English L1 speakers, and in my part of the country, there isn't a huge Black population like in Chicago or the South, for example that would allow sociolects to describe the change.

Are there described anatomic differences between racial groups?

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    That's highly unlikely, as far as I understand. Because of high mobily of people in the US, the speakers in your part of the country may still have grown up elsewhere, and speak a sociolect. Also, are you sure you're not confusing accent with timbre? The latter is factored by anatomical differences. Nov 15, 2015 at 3:22
  • Perhaps timbre is the right term. Could you turn that into an answer? Nov 15, 2015 at 3:25
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    Contemporary AAVE dialects have a common geographic origin. Most African-Americans are no more than three generations removed from the rural South, where 90% of them lived African-Americans lived as late as 1910. In the Great Migration (1910-1970) African-Americans brought their dialect to the northern cities, where they were still linguistically segregated and had far less opportunity than other immigrant groups to assimilate their tongue to the local standard. More recently, those who have* assimilated have faced little pressure to lose the characteristic 'melody' of AAVE. Nov 15, 2015 at 3:25
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    I don't believe you when you claim to be able to tell race from accent. You could never tell my own Native American ancestry from listening to me, since I grew up completely separated from any Indian community. My people assimilated long ago. Distinguishable accents are cultural, not racial. Please try to keep clear of pseudo-facts which have racially bigoted implications.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 15, 2015 at 6:23
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    I'm not saying every individual is racially identifiable by their voice but some voices are distinctive. I'm not sure it's bigoted to suggest that races, which do have anatomical differences could have anatomical changes that lead to different sounding voices. Nov 15, 2015 at 6:44

3 Answers 3


There are several elements to this issue:

  1. Your ability to identify ethnicity is much more likely to be a result of perceiving cultural styles of speaking than anything physiological. You would most likely not be able to replicate this with speakers of other English accents. And even less likely if the speaker was just uttering individual sounds without intonation.

  2. You are probably much worse at this than you think. This sort of thing is incredibly prone to bias. Particularly when it comes to race, you should immediately assume that any generalizations you formulate based on your experience are biased as are your perceptions of any particular instances upon which the generalizations are based.

  3. Just like it is difficult to draw a boundary between languages and dialects, it is even more difficult to draw boundaries between 'races'. Nevertheless, some studies seem to show differences in formant frequencies across languages - this paper gives a good summary of some of the research. There were also some some significant trends in the configuration of vocal tract (however, with huge in-group variation).

But these findings do not necessarily imply anything straightforwardly deterministic about race and the voice (even if we were to accept an unproblematic definition of race). The key quote from the paper is this (my emphasis):

To the anthropologists and linguists, the findings also implied that not all formant frequencies of even a neutral utterance carefully designed to have maximally reduced specific language/dialect influences, could be completely accounted for solely by vocal tract parameters. As was indicated in the previous paragraph, there may not be a linear correlation between length and volumetric parameters with the acoustic outputs. In other words, factors other than morphological differences, such as dialect (Yang, 1996), the effect of air perturbation (Mayo & Grant, 1995), a wide range of speech style, and other cultural-linguistic characteristics may all bring about significant changes to the vocal output of the speakers.

  • Very helpful paper, perhaps cultural styles of speaking play a larger role than I thought that they could. I didn't mean to suggest that I, or anyone, could tell someone's ethnicity by voice alone. Nov 16, 2015 at 0:35

Although this isn't completely resolved yet, racial anatomic differences have been said to influence the timbre of peoples' voices.

This paper reports "significant gender and race main effects were found in certain vocal tract dimensions" of male and female white American, African American and Chinese speakers. And the shape/size of the vocal tract is relevant for timbre (and pitch control), cf. Wolfe et al. 2009.

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    The mentioned factor works in both directions. Whenever I see an European speaking Chinese or Thai, their vocal sounds like a lower average timbre than a native speaker's would, regardless of the grammatic tones. Or, as I caught myself doing, force myself using a higher average pitch. Nov 15, 2015 at 5:11
  • Great, thank you. Do you know of anyone who has characterized Native American timbres? Those are the ones I find to be most striking. Nov 15, 2015 at 5:40
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    Only two significant anatomical differences were found: Chinese males have larger oral and vocal tract volumes, and white females have larger pharyngeal volumes. I recommend the version in Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics 2006 (20, 9: p691-702) which shows that F1 is lower for Chinese males, and F2 is marginally higher compared to AA males.
    – user6726
    Nov 15, 2015 at 23:48

I have often had the experience here in Britain of talking to a person from Jamaica on the telephone, automatically assuming him or her to be black, only to find out that this person was in fact a white Jamaican. For this reason I find it very difficult to believe that there is any anatomical rationale behind so-called Black English accents.

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