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Whispering is an unvoiced mode of phonation in which the vocal cords are abducted so that they do not vibrate; air passes between the arytenoid cartilages to create audible turbulence during speech.[1] Supralaryngeal articulation remains the same as in normal speech.

In normal speech, the vocal cords alternate between states of voice and voicelessness. In whispering, only the voicing segments change, so that the vocal cords alternate between whisper and voicelessness (though the acoustic difference between the two states is minimal).[2] Because of this, implementing speech recognition for whispered speech is more difficult, as the characteristic spectral range needed to detect syllables and words is not given through the total absence of tone.[3] More advanced techniques such as neural networks may be used, however, as is done by Amazon Alexa.[4]

There is no symbol in the IPA for whispered phonation, since it is not used phonemically in any language. However, a sub-dot under phonemically voiced segments is sometimes seen in the literature, as [ʃʊ̣ḍ] for whispered should.

Social role

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A girl whispers to another girl.

Whispering is generally used quietly, to limit the hearing of speech to those closest to the speaker; for example, to convey secret information without being overheard or to avoid disturbing others in a quiet place such as a library or place of worship. Loud whispering, known as a stage whisper, is generally used only for dramatic or emphatic purposes. Whispering can strain the vocal cords more than regular speech in some people, for whom speaking softly is recommended instead.[5]


An ASMR video wherein the performer whispers to the camera.

In 2010, it was discovered that whispering is one of the many triggers of ASMR,[6] a tingling sensation caused by listening to soft, relaxing sounds. This phenomenon made news headlines after videos on YouTube of people speaking up close to the camera in a soft whisper, giving the viewer tingles.[7] People often listen to these videos to help them sleep and to relax.[8]

In non-humans

The prevalence and function of low-amplitude signaling by non-humans are poorly characterized.[9] As such, it is difficult to ascertain the existence of whispering in non-humans. This is made more difficult by the specific physiology of human whispering. By sufficiently relaxing the definition of whispering, it can be argued any number of non-human species demonstrate whisper-like behaviors. Often these behaviors function to increase fitness.[9]

If whispering is more broadly defined as the "production of short-range, low-amplitude acoustic signals," whispering is observed in myriad animals including non-human mammals, fish, and insects.[9]

If whispering is restricted to include only acoustic signals which are significantly different than those produced at high amplitude, whispering is still observed across biological taxa.[9] An unlikely example is the croaking gourami. Croaking gouramis produce a high-amplitude "croak" during agonistic disputes by beating specialized pectoral fins.[10] Female gouramis additionally use these fins to produce an acoustically distinct, low-amplitude "purr" during copulation.[11]

If whispering is restricted to include only creatures possessing vocal folds (i.e., mammals and some reptiles),[12] whispering has been observed in species including cotton-top tamarins and a variety of bats.[9] In captive cotton-top tamarins, whisper-like behavior is speculated to enable troop communication while not alerting predators.[a][13] Numerous species of bats (e.g., spotted bats,[14] northern long-eared bats,[15] and western barbastelles)[16] alter their echolocation calls[b] to avoid detection by prey.[c]

Such a relaxed definition of whispering (i.e., production of short-range, low-amplitude acoustic signals which are significantly different than those produced at high amplitude) cannot be applied to humans without including vocalizations distinct from human whispering (e.g., creaky voice, and falsetto). Further research is needed to ascertain the existence of whispering in non-humans as established in the larger article.


  1. ^ The low-amplitude vocalizations of cotton-top tamarins are believed to be an alternative to high-amplitude mobbing calls. If true, both vocalizations would be distinct instances of anti-predator adaptations.[13]
  2. ^ These alterations come at the cost of spatial awareness.
  3. ^ All mentioned species of bats prey on eared moths.

See also


  1. ^ Principles of Phonetics. John Laver, 1994, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.
  2. ^ Language History: An Introduction. Andrew L. Sihler, 1999, John Benjamins, ISBN 1556199686.
  3. ^ John Coleman; Esther Grabe; Bettina Braun. "Larynx movements and intonation in whispered speech" (PDF). Retrieved 2022-03-15.
  4. ^ "Whisper to Alexa, and She'll Whisper Back". Retrieved 2018-10-28.
  5. ^ O'Connor, Anahad (7 February 2011). "The Claim: Whispering Can be Hazardous to Your Voice". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Seal, Rebecca (22 March 2019). "HOW ASMR Become a Sensation". Financial Times.
  7. ^ "The weirdest YouTube craze yet". NewsComAu. 2014-11-05. Retrieved 2019-08-29.
  8. ^ "GentleWhispering and ASMR: The voice that triggers euphoria and seven". The Independent. 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2019-08-29.
  9. ^ a b c d e Reichard, Dustin; Anderson, Rindy (July 2015). "Why signal softly? The structure, function and evolutionary significance of low-amplitude signals". Animal Behaviour. 105: 253–265. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.04.017. S2CID 53188816.
  10. ^ Ladich, Friedrich; Brittinger, Waltraud; Kratochvil, Helmut (1992). "Significance of agonistic vocalization in the croaking gourami (Trichopsis vittatus, Teleostei)". Ethology. 90 (4): 307–314. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1992.tb00841.x. ISSN 0179-1613.
  11. ^ Ladich, Friedrich (2007). "Females whisper briefly during sex: context- and sex-specific differences in sounds made by croaking gouramis". Animal Behaviour. 73 (2): 379–387. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.04.014. S2CID 53164055.
  12. ^ Brumm, Henrik; Zollinger, Sue Anne (31 May 2017). "Vocal plasticity in a reptile". Proceedings. Biological Sciences. 284 (1855). doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0451. PMC 5454267. PMID 28539517.
  13. ^ a b Morrison, Rachel; Diana, Reiss (2013). "Whisper‐like behavior in a non‐human primate". Zoo Biology. 32 (6): 626–631. doi:10.1002/zoo.21099. PMID 24038444.
  14. ^ Fullard, J; Dawson, J (1997). "The echolocation calls of the spotted bat Euderma maculatum are relatively inaudible to moths". The Journal of Experimental Biology. 200 (Pt 1): 129–137. doi:10.1242/jeb.200.1.129. PMID 9317482.
  15. ^ Faure, PA; Fullard, JH; Dawson, JW (1993). "The gleaning attacks of the northern long-eared bat, Myotis septentrionalis, are relatively inaudible to moths". The Journal of Experimental Biology. 178: 173–189. doi:10.1242/jeb.178.1.173. PMID 8315370.
  16. ^ Goerlitz, Holger; ter Hofstede, Hannah; Zeale, Matt; Jones, Gareth; Holderied, Marc (2010). "An Aerial-hawking bat uses stealth echolocation to counter moth hearing". Current Biology. 20 (17): 1568–1572. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.046. PMID 20727755. S2CID 15939048.
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