Warren vocal stereotypes

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A recent WSJ editorial ("A $900 Bottle of Hypocrisy", 12/20/2019) engages Democratic presidential candidates, and especially Elizabeth Warren, on the issue of money in politics:

Few political spectacles are more amusing than watching Democrats who are millionaires attempting to deny that they consort with other millionaires, much less with dastardly billionaires. This was on extended display at Thursday’s presidential debate, and it offers a lesson about money and politics.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been raising millions of dollars in Silicon Valley, New York, Hollywood and other well-to-do progressive enclaves. This has riled Elizabeth Warren, who used to be a favorite of the wealthy liberal class but as a presidential candidate has taken a vow of non-association with the rich. Ms. Warren accused the young mayor of holding a fundraiser “in a wine cave full of crystals” and $900-a-bottle wine.

The most highly-rated comment, displayed first, comes from someone named Alan Sewell, who is currently credited with 34,875 WSJ comments and 139,432 likes:

I thought that Bogushontas would be a shoo-in for the Democrats' nomination due to her having one moccason in the river of progressivism and the other planted squarely on the terra firma of Democrat Party crony capitalism where the real estate, banking, and money fund moguls play. I thought her mix of "progressive" talk and crony capitalism protection would be exactly what the Democrats would want.

However, she gets demerits for her speaking delivery, which combines the overtones of fingernails-on-chalkboard with a honking goose. That's when she's calm. When anybody gets after her, like Buttigieg last night, her voice goes high-pitched a couple octaves up into dog-whistle country.

Since this is Language Log, and not Class Warfare Log, I'm just going to evaluate his characterization of Elizabeth Warren's speaking delivery, and specifically her changes in pitch range. We can add this to my defense of George W. Bush's pronunciation and word choice ("You say Nevada, I say Nevahda", 1/3/2004), Barack Obama's pronoun usage ("Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012), and Donald Trump's syntactic coherence ("Trump's eloquence", 8/5/2015).

I'll compare Warren's answer to the first question in the debate with one of her exchanges with Pete Buttigieg about the Wine Cave. Among the candidates' answers to the first question, she actually has the second-narrowest pitch range (defined here as the ratio in semitones between the 95th percentile and the 5th percentile) , though she has the highest mean fundamental frequency:

 Mean F0
 F0 range
Biden 131 11.4
Buttigieg 188 14.1
Klobuchar 207 11.3
Saunders 172 11.0
Steyer 177 11.5
Warren 230 9.7
Yang 211 9.6

See "December debate prosody", 12/22/2019, for the corresponding audio clips.

So what happens in her wine-cave clash with Pete Buttigieg? Does her voice really go "high-pitched a couple octaves up into dog-whistle country"?

The clash starts at about 1:49:37 of the cited YouTube version of the debate. The segments of the back-and-forth are laid out later in the post, if you want to listen. Warren explicitly criticizes the "Wine Cave" in the clip labelled "Warren 1"; Buttigieg strikes back in the clip labelled "Buttigieg 2"; Warren responds in "Warren 2"; and Buttigieg gets the last word in "Buttigieg 3".

If you only care about pitch changes, here are the mean f0 values and relative f0 ranges for those five segments, along with the relationship in semitones of those mean f0 values to the same candidates' mean values in their answers to the first question at the start of the debate:

 Mean F0
 Interval to Q1
 F0 Range
 Buttigieg Q1 188 0 14.1
Warren Q1 230 0 9.7
 Buttigieg clash 1 190 0.2 14.7
Warren clash 1 251 1.5 12.6
Buttigieg clash 2 213 2.2 16.6
Warren clash 2 263 2.3 11.7
Buttigieg clash 3 211 2.0 15.1

If you're not clear about pitch intervals in semitones, the idea is that an octave (which is a pitch ratio of 2-to-1) should be divided into 12 equal parts, corresponding to the 12 semitones of an equally-tempered scale, so that the formula for the pitch interval in semitones between two pitch frequencies P1 and P2 is


Since an octave is 12 semitones, Mr. Sewell's hyperbolic assertion that Senator Warren's "voice goes high-pitched a couple octaves up into dog-whistle country" implies an interval of about 2*12 = 24 semitones. Since her actual change is about 2 semitones — not very different from Mayor Buttigieg's — Sewell's estimate is off by an order of magnitude.

To deal with concerns that the relationship between mean values might hide some relevant differences elsewhere in the distribution, we can visualize the relationship among pitch quantiles:

These changes do obviously reflect a natural reaction to intellectual conflict — what a physiological psychologist might call "arousal". And this would not be the first time such a thing happened in a presidential debate, or even the first occasion documented on Language Log. See "Debate quantification: How MAD did he get?", 10/29/2016, which shows that Donald Trump increased his median pitch from 112 Hz to 144 Hz (or 12*log2(144/112) = 4.4 semitones) in the course of a heated exchange with Hilary Clinton.

(Of course, there are lots of other reasons for increases in vocal effort and therefore pitch: speaking to someone further away, speaking over background noise, and so on. But in this case, none of those other factors changes.)

So why does Alan Sewell make such a hyperbolic fuss about this case? Obviously he doesn't like Elizabeth Warren. And it's a common misogynistic stereotype that the voice of a woman in conflict is shrill and unpleasant.

Here are the wine-cave clips from the recent debate:

Buttigieg 1
Warren 1
Buttigieg 2
Warren 2
Buttigieg 3

It would be worth devoting another post to the weird idea that a modest arousal-linked increase in pitch is a "dog whistle", a phrase that the OED glosses as "A statement or expression which in addition to its ostensible meaning has a further interpretation or connotation intended to be understood only by a specific target audience".

The fact that Alan Sewell so clearly misunderstands the meaning of that common English expression led me to wonder whether his many WSJ comments might actually come from someone in the St. Petersburg troll factory. But Mr. Sewell, or at least someone with the same name, is also a prolific author, one of whose recent works is "Confederate Union Victory: An Alternate Civil War History":

What if the NORTH had seceded?

What if the pro-slavery Democrats had kept their party united and won the election of 1860? What if Jefferson Davis fought to save the Union while Abraham Lincoln fought to leave it?

The Confederate Union and The United States of Free America are at war. They are marshaling all their strength for the titanic battle that will decide the war. Which side will win The Confederate Union Victory?

The Confederate Union War is the alternate history of the Civil War the way it should have been!

So apparently he's just someone skilled in the fabrication of alternative realities.



  1. Robert Coren said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 10:27 am

    A side note, as I've seen this several times: Did she really say "in a wine cave full of crystals"? I'd expect "crystal" in that context, meaning really expensive glassware.

    [(myl) Yes:

    And there are indeed (many) crystals, though they're in a chandelier rather than literally filling the cave — "Democrats Sparred Over a Wine Cave Fund-Raiser. Its Billionaire Owner Isn’t Pleased.", NYT 12/20/2019:

    To reach the wine cave that set off a firestorm in this week’s Democratic presidential debate, visitors must navigate a hillside shrouded in mossy oak trees and walk down a brick-and-limestone hallway lined with wine barrels. Inside the room, a strikingly long table made of wood and onyx sits below a raindrop chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.


  2. Rachael Churchill said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 1:11 pm

    But the metaphorical sense of "dog whistle" clearly derives from the literal sense, and he's using it in the literal sense (actual dog whistles are high pitched). Has the metaphorical sense become so widespread that people have forgotten it ever had a literal meaning?

    [(myl) But the literal sense is a whistle that's so high in pitch that people can't hear it at all, just dogs, which are sensitive to a wider range of acoustic frequencies. That's where the metaphor comes from. And in any case the literal sense make no sense at all as a simile for a high-pitched voice.

    As for the relative frequency, I checked 20 random examples from the iWeb corpus, and 20 from the COCA corpus — all 40 were the metaphorical usage. There are real dog whistles out there, but for most people, the methaphorical sense is the one they encounter most.]

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 4:24 pm

    "The fact that Alan Sewell so clearly misunderstands the meaning of that common English expression". Not at all convinced that it is a "common English expression". I knew the expression only in its literal sense, and was unaware until I read this article that it also has a metaphorical meaning.

    [(myl) You must not have read any newspaper or magazine articles about politics in the past decade or so, then. Follow the link to Google News and take a look. Or search the archives at any newspaper or magazine that's not especially about dog training…]

  4. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    In the literal sense, "dog whistle" is also inappropriate, since dog whistles are specifically not annoying to humans. While they are high-pitched, they don't sound high-pitched, or like anything at all. It's regular whistles that make annoying high-pitched sounds.

  5. Don said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

    It's baffling to me why you think that a high-pitched whistle would "make no sense at all as a simile for a high-pitched voice." Even if you think it's a clumsy simile because of the disanalogy that Daniel Barkalow points out, calling it a "weird idea" and saying that the guy is misunderstanding the expression seems deliberately obtuse to me.

    [(myl) But an actual dog whistle doesn't make an irritatingly high-voice sound, it make a sound that's so high in pitch that no human can hear it, as Wikipedia explains:

    A dog whistle (also known as silent whistle or Galton's whistle) is a type of whistle that emits sound in the ultrasonic range, which people cannot hear but some other animals can, including dogs and domestic cats, and is used in their training. It was invented in 1876 by Francis Galton and is mentioned in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, in which he describes experiments to test the range of frequencies that could be heard by various animals, such as a house cat.


  6. JPL said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 12:56 am

    Since this is Language Log, I would like to point out that When Mr Sewell wrote down and published the sentences of that second paragraph he had no intention to make a claim and did not succeed in making a claim, because expressing a claim (in this case one whose form indicates descriptive intent) conventionally requires that the speaker sincerely intends to describe accurately an objective situation and that the speaker expects and invites the expression to be subject to scrutiny or critique. So if his sentences are taken to be expressing claims, then they would be judged to "misfire" in Austin;s sense. In an academic context conventions of this sort would be assumed and violations of them would be regarded as dishonest. To sincerely express a claim that is false due to error is OK; Mr Sewell is not doing that. He's doing something else, probably coming under the area of phenomena considered by Harry Frankfurt. So, no need for fact checking. (But the phonetic facts are all very interesting in themselves as a standard for judgment, thank you for that.) As for Mr Sewell's evident misogyny, he is the one displaying hysteria in that second paragraph.

    [(myl) I called the sentence in question a "hyperbolic assertion". The problem isn't that it's false as stated. It has two problems: first, the "dog whistle" simile makes no sense at all, either literally or figuratively; and second, "two octaves up" implies that the change is a noteworthy one, while in fact Warren's increase in pitch when engaged in verbal conflict appears to be modest in size, comparable to Pete Buttigieg's and about half Donald Trump's. ]

  7. Leo said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 4:59 am

    A typo ("Warrren") has slipped into the title of this post.

    [(myl) Thanks for detecting it! Unlike my previous macbook, whose keyboard decided after a year or so not to type the letter 'e' any more, the current incarnation (and the last laptop I'll ever buy from Apple) has decided to double nearly all instances of common letters such as 'o', 't', 'r', … ]

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 5:09 am

    "[(myl) You must not have read any newspaper or magazine articles about politics in the past decade or so, then". Fair comment. Having followed your link, I agree that the phrase, in its non-literal sense, is widely attested in the political sphere. It had simply not entered my stream of consciousness, possibly because I find party politics so distasteful and so clearly flawed in terms of a mechanism for formulating national policy (etc) that apart from discussions on Brexit I tend not to read such content.

  9. Don said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    I get that dog whistles are inaudible and don’t have the property of being annoying to the human ear. They do have the property of being extremely high-pitched. It’s as if I said “this coffee is so hot, it’s like lava!” and you said “why, that makes no sense: lava, being made of molten rock, is not something you would drink in the first place.”

    Again, even granting that the simile is not a very artful one because of this analogy, it’s a real leap from there to “what a weird idea; Sewell has clearly misunderstood this expression.” It’s hard for me to believe that that leap is not heavily politically motivated, as someone else suggested in a now-removed response to my earlier comment.

  10. Don said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    Sorry: “because of this *dis*analogy.”

  11. Rose Eneri said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    I find "dog whistle" in its political use to be baffling. A literal dog whistle cannot be heard at all by humans, whereas a figurative dog whistle is heard by everybody. It just supposedly carries different meanings to different people. And honestly, I've never understood the supposed "dog whistle" meaning. I think it's just made up by people looking to demonize the speaker.

    Regarding Prof. Liberman's assertion, "And it's a common misogynistic stereotype that the voice of a woman in conflict is shrill and unpleasant" although I agree with the stereotype, I disagree with the source. I am a woman and not a misogynist, but I do find woman's voices in general less pleasing than men's probably because a woman's voice is higher.

    Ms Warren's F0 is higher throughout the entire exchange (except at the very end when Mr Buttigieg's raises briefly). Perhaps Mr. Sewell's perception of Ms Warren's voice being so shrill is because any voice above a certain F0 is perceived as shrill. Since woman are more likely to exceed this limit, they are more likely to be heard as shrill. When I was in the business environment, I carefully modulated my speech to maintain a lower register (without creaking).

    I have 2 childhood memories that drive my thoughts on this matter. I have very happy memories of resting my head on my father's chest and listening to his deep voice resonate. I also remember that both my parents were much more "dangerous" when they spoke softly. If they were yelling, they were mad; if they were speaking softly, they were furious!

  12. The Other Mark P said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    "And it's a common misogynistic stereotype that the voice of a woman in conflict is shrill and unpleasant"

    I think there's two parts that need separating there. People know that many, perhaps even most, women get shrill when they get excited. That's merely reality. The misogynistic part, if any, is the unpleasantness of it.

    As a school teacher, I know many woman teachers who have had to train themselves to lose any shrillness, because they know that will lose them authority. A lot of my fellow male teachers similarly work on not shouting when annoyed, (Would it be a misandrogenistic stereotype to say that "the voice of men in conflict is loud and unpleasant"? Because I know lots of women that find shouty excited men to be extremely unpleasant.)

    Contra to Sewell, I strongly suspect that Ms Warren has worked hard on not being shrill, because it's vital that she not lose authority when she's excited. It's a feature of all successful female politicians. They get accused of it anyway — but then that's a feature of being a politician. Any politician.

  13. JPL said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 4:06 pm


    I understand and agree with your point about the two problems. In fact my comment was in response to your question, "So why does Alan Sewell make such a hyperbolic fuss about this case?", and an elaboration on the hypothesis that he is engaging in "the fabrication of alternative realities". I think Sewell was using the expression "dog whistle" in its acoustic sense and not its political sense. The metaphorical political term 'dog whistle' is used to refer to cases where a speaker uses an expression to communicate an intended message to their target audience, while the rest of the audience does not notice or pick up on it. Sewell's use is nothing about message; it is so (hysterically) hyperbolic that it no longer even makes any sense as hyperbole.

    (To specify what he IS trying to achieve communicatively in that second paragraph is still an interesting open problem. It reminds me of Donald Trump's bit about dishwashers.)

  14. Allen Thrasher said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

    Many years ago, probably in the ‘90s, I sat in the back of a presentation for young female academics at the Association for Asian Studies, at which the speaker, a female herself, recommended that the young women try to bring their voices down a whole octave.

  15. Maude said,

    December 25, 2019 @ 6:27 am

    I'd be surprised by anyone calling Warren's voice "shrill". Female yes but not high-pitched, annoying and reverberating.

    On the other hand, given the number of posts M Sewell as well as his obvious interest in words and prose, it is legitimate to question his use of "dog-whistle" country and 2 octaves exagération.

    Maybe he's calling his readership dogs.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    December 25, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    I think I learnt the political sense of ‘dog whistle’ from Language Log, and I suspect it is less common in Britain (perhaps our politicians are marginally more respectable?). But my experience is that it is usually, if not exclusively, used as an accusation against right-wing politicians, not liberals. There may be counter-examples.

    But this example is in a comment that is explicitly about the delivery, not the content, so it is clearly intended as a hyperbolic synonym for high-pitched, and its accuracy is irrelevant.

  17. Rodger C said,

    December 25, 2019 @ 11:26 am

    I once heard an NPR reporter refer to GW Bush's use of what struck me as quite ordinary Christian allusions as "dog whistles." This of course says more about NPR than about GWB.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    December 25, 2019 @ 11:38 am

    The reason 'dog whistle' was an issue is that it's not normally used with that meaning, and it seems not unlikely that the person heard it with its most common (in the US, anyway) meaning but misunderstood. But it's also possible, and maybe right here, that the familiar phrase just popped into the speaker's mind in a context that sort of made sense, and in this sort of partisan hyperbole one doesn't pause to think whether it makes sense.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

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