Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Genetic Voiceprints?

BBC has posted an audio file of a discussion on forensic phonetics, the science of studying voices in relation to legal proceedings.  While voiceprints are not unique in the way that fingerprints are, phonetics scientists work on identifying distinctive characteristics in speech so as to identify specific speakers.

So this made me wonder how much of a genetic component there is to what our voices sound like and what can be passed down in a family.  I know that I have always sounded like my mother (which definitely caused some problems after she passed away).  People often got us confused on the phone.

Twins often sound very much alike.  For example, if you've ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen Leigh and Leslie Keno, they sound almost exactly like each other.  I used to practice listening to them without looking at the screen to see if I could figure out which brother was which.  But then one day I heard someone who sounded a lot like them, but not quite the same.  It took a while for the camera to show the appraiser, and it wasn't either one of them!  When they finally showed the person's name, it was Mitchell Keno, their older brother.  So there's something in their family that's come down through all three men's voices.

Wouldn't it be cool to find out that you sounded like your great-great-grandmother (or -grandfather)?  Unfortunately, I suspect very, very few of us have recordings of our ancestors beyond (maybe) our parents and grandparents.  But making digital recordings is so easy now, you can record your own voice so your descendants can hear you.  Or make a video!  Then maybe your great-great-granddaughter (or -grandson) will find out that she sounds just like you.

If you had an ancestor who was a performer of some sort, you might be able to find movies, albums, or some other sort of recordings of the person's voice.  I've even heard of people tracking down old radio recordings.  Hunt around and see what you can come up with.


  1. I have tapes of my maternal grandfather reading shaggy dog stories. Then there are some tapes of my dad preaching - both before and after his cancer surgery. I still can't listen to those without tearing up somewhat. Dad could *fill* a church with his voice, no electronics needed. He was the voice of God for me growing up. Problem is, that same voice of God told me to clean my room...

  2. I guess if the voice of God tells you to clean the room, you might be more inclined to do it?

    The one ancestor I really wish that I could hear her voice was well known in the Quaker community in New Jersey. She gave inspiring testimony. When she was older and could no longer stand, she would pray on her knees for hours. I can imagine she must have had a mesmerizing voice.


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