Re: Why is high high? (Robert Bolia )

Subject: Re: Why is high high?
From:    Robert Bolia  <rbolia(at)FALCON.AL.WPAFB.AF.MIL>
Date:    Wed, 26 Aug 1998 08:52:15 -0400

Pawel, I suspect that the use of the words "high" and "low" with reference to pitch is common to most of the Indo-European languages (the ones you mentioned, as well as Russian, Spanish, etc.). I do not know whether this usage extends to non-IE languages, though I suspect it may. The fact that it is common in IE languages does not necessarily mean that it is indigenous. It may well be that it came into the various languages by means of the technical literature, i.e., readers of different linguistic backgrounds reading the same scientific texts (original or translation) of the Greeks, Arabs, Romans, etc.; it might even be later. Anyway, I do not suppose it predates some sort of study of wave mechanics (however, I may be wrong). There have been studies done that have showed that, as the frequency of a sound increases, so does its perceived elevation. The first was by Pratt in 1930 (replicated by Trimble in 1934). You might want to look at the following: Roffler & Butler, "Localization of tonal stimuli in the vertical plane," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 43:1260-1266 (1968). Butler, "Does tonotopicity subserve the perceived elevation of a sound source?," Federation Proceedings, 33:1920-1923 (1974). Rogers & Butler, "The linkage between stimulus frequency and covert peak areas as it relates to monaural localization," Perception & Psychophysics, 52:536-546 (1992). I doubt that this phenomenon is the "cause" of our use of the words "high" and "low" to describe high- and low-frequency sounds. My feeling is that the use of these words in this context is learned - small children do not use such words to describe pitch - and is probably only a result of the physical acoustics (i.e., the fact that the numbers corresponding to frequency go from low to high). Colloquially, this usage might come from the musical scale, with which most people are to some extent familiar. Bob. Robert S. Bolia Research Scientist Veridian Air Force Research Laboratory Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH >>> Pawel Kusmierek <pq(at)> 08/26 5:10 AM >>> Dear list-members, In several Indo-European languages (e.g. English, German, Italian, Polish) words 'high' and 'low' are used to describe sounds of big and small frequency, respectively. Do any of you know if this relation appears in other (especially, non-Indo-European) languages? Moreover, what may be the source of the relation? What has a vertical linear distance (high/low) to do with sound frequency? When you look at people, the relation of size and frequency appears to be inverse: usually tall ('high')people (men) talk and sing at lower frequencies than short ('low') people (women, children). Big things sound lower than small things: a piccolo is smaller than a tuba. I read in a review that as frequency of a sound increases, the perceived location rises in elevation (I have not the original papers yet). Could this be the cause? But what are the physiological bases of this perceptual phenomenon? Is it caused by some selective attenuation/amplification by pinnae? Or is it a property of auditory centers in brain? Is it inherited or learned? If it is inherited, it should have an evolutionary cause: did high- frequency sounds come to an australopithecus from high elevation (birds)? and low frequency sounds from low elevation (sounds of buffalo's steps transmitted via ground)? If the perceptual phenomenon is learned, then again: do high frequency sounds come to an infant from high elevation and low sounds from low elevation? Can anyone comment my questions? Pawel Kusmierek ************************************* Pawel Kusmierek Department of Neurophysiology Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology 3, Pasteur St., 02-093 Warsaw, Poland tel. (48-22) 659 85 71 ex 379 or 388 fax (48-22) 822 53 42 E-mail pq(at) ICQ 11740175 McGill is running a new version of LISTSERV (1.8c on Windows NT). Information is available on the WEB at McGill is running a new version of LISTSERV (1.8c on Windows NT). Information is available on the WEB at

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