A frog in my throat: talking about voices

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by Liz Walter

The way someone speaks is very important, and often gives an indication of their character. It is therefore not surprising that we have a lot of words to describe the tone and timbre of voices.

Someone with a high or high-pitched voice speaks with sounds near the top of the range of human voices, while someone with deep voice speaks at the bottom of this range. Low-pitched also means deep but also often implies that the voice is difficult to hear:

We could hear the children’s high-pitched laughter.

Charles has a very deep voice.

He spoke in a low-pitched murmur.

There are lots of adjectives for describing voices in a rather critical way. Squeaky means unpleasantly high-pitched, often describing someone who is nervous or over-excited. Strident means loud and unpleasant and is usually used to describe people who express their views in a strong way that annoys other people. Shrill is similar, but also means high-pitched, and is usually used of women:

She talks all the time, in an annoying squeaky voice.

He talks over other people in a strident voice.

I wish she wouldn’t talk in such a shrill way.

Other negative adjectives describe problems with voices. Someone with a croaky voice sounds as if they have a sore throat. If someone sounds as if they need to cough, we say they have a frog in their throat, while a nasal voice sounds as if the speaker has a blocked nose:

Please excuse my croaky voice – I have a cold.

Oh dear, Max has a frog in his throat.

He spoke with an unpleasant nasal drawl.

More positive words tend to be rather formal, such as sonorous, meaning pleasant and deep, or mellifluous meaning very pleasant to listen to:

His sonorous voice inspired trust in people.

Her mellifluous tones brought her a lot of voiceover work.

A loud, deep voice might be described as booming and a loud, high-pitched voice as piercing. These are both rather negative words. Resonant is a positive word for a voice that is loud and clear:

I could hear his booming voice from the other side of the field.

She gave a piercing scream.

He delivered his speech in resonant tones.

Finally, we often describe voices by using verbs for animal sounds. For example, people may croak like a frog (hence ‘have a frog in your throat), roar like a lion (speak very loudly and angrily), bleat like a lamb (speak quietly and nervously or complain annoyingly), bray like a donkey (speak loudly and in an arrogant way) or purr like a cat (speak in a low, pleased voice).

There are many other words for voices: do feel free to make suggestions below!

14 thoughts on “A frog in my throat: talking about voices

  1. Nilda Martinez Ruiz

    In Spanish we use “tener una papa en la boca” (“to have a potatoe in one’s mouth”) informally, meaning that is difficult to understand what you say by problemas of pronunciation articulation or you are somehow “posh”. Is this phrase you consider in this article equivalent to “tener una papa en la boca”? Regards

      1. Jani

        Hi there, Spanish is spoken in so many countries that it’d not be fair to generalise. I’m from Spain and never heard the expression “to have a potatoe in one’s mouth”. Cheers!

  2. Maryem Salama

    It is very interesting. Once I read that English is not a tone language, but an intonation language in a reference written by a linguistics teacher. What does that mean, please? Thank you, Liz.

    1. Adelaide Dupont

      Also emphases within syllables and in between and around sentences and phrases.

      There is a very famous sentence: “I didn’t say she didn’t steal the money”.

      Each word “says” a different thing through intonation.

      Intoning is putting an emphasis that the word itself does not suggest/have on its own or with the other words.

      It goes below – tones in Mandarin/Cantonese seem to be above for me.

    2. hugo

      A tone language or tonal language is a language in which meaning is not only conveyed through consonants and vowels but different tones as well. A good example is mandarin, which uses five tones. If you say “ma” high and level that means mother, if you say “ma” starting at a high tone, then making a dip and then going back up again, that means “horse”. This does not apply to english. There is no difference between saying breathtaking in a high pitched voice or a low voice. The meaning of the word is still the same.

      However, english does use intonation to express feelings and stress the fact you’re asking a question(the pitch of someone asking a question usually rises at the end of a sentence in most languages I know of).
      Tonal languages can use intonation as well. The difference is that tone-changing to change meaning entirely is a change in tone within a word, while intonation is a change in tone throughout the sentence.

  3. Tatiana Balandina

    We have similar expessions in Russian.When it is rather difficult to underatand what someone is saying, we say he or she has some porridge in the mouth

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