Over many years in the Lounge I have written about my fascination with the language of US Supreme Court arguments and opinions — here and here, to give only a couple of examples. I listen to the recordings of oral argument before the Court frequently: what’s not to love about some of the most intelligent people you will never meet, carefully analyzing and dissecting the meaning and intentions that lie behind the language of laws and statutes?

A subject I have not covered in previous columns but one that is in my mind whenever I listen to the Supreme Court at work is the voices of the justices. Several are quite distinct in my mind for reasons I will go into, and others are the source of ongoing confusion because I cannot tell who is speaking. Can you?

A problem closely related to my personal one here concerns the lexicon generally. What are the describable features of voices? How do we distinguish them, and more importantly, what language do we have for characterizing voices in a way that is meaningful to others? It’s well known that we recognize the voices of people familiar to us, whether through our acquaintance or their celebrity; but how do we talk about their voices in a way that makes the differences among them graspable?

The most common adjectives that modify voice, either attributively (e.g., a creaky voice) or by predication (e.g., Her voice is creaky) are low, loud, deep, and soft. If we add salient modifiers of voices (that is, words that characterize voice far more often than would be expected statistically, given the frequency of the words in English) we can add such adjectives as husky, booming, high-pitched, gravelly, squeaky, hoarse, rough, raspy. These adjectives do in fact help us to distinguish voices that have a prominent or unusual feature, but how do we distinguish voices that sound standard, typical, not exceptional in any way that we can describe? This is my difficulty with some justices’ voices.

If listening to oral arguments were to be combined with the old TV quiz show “Name That Tune,” I think I would do very well with the voices of the female justices. I could identify each speaker after about three words. All of the women on the court have distinct voices; here’s how I think of them.

  • Justice Elena Kagen is Manhattan born and raised and she retains a distinctive accent that gives her away. Listen, for example, to how she pronounces the word law, with a diphthong rather than a single vowel. In the most general terms, she has a New York accent.
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor is also a New Yorker (the Bronx), of Puerto Rican descent. If she ever had a Hispanic accent or a New York accent it has been displaced by education. But her voice is slow, deliberate, and clear. Justice Sotomayor’s style is also distinctive. If you hear a female voice begin an utterance with “I’m sorry,” and the next thing you hear is a leader’s argument being shredded, you can be sure that it is Sotomayor.
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett speaks in a Midwestern Mom, slightly nasalized voice that sounds younger than those of her female peers because she is considerably younger: 12 years younger than Kagan, 18 years younger than Sotomayor.
Some of the male justices also have distinctive voices. Here’s how I recognize the easy cases:
  • Justice Clarence Thomas has the deepest and slowest voice on the Court. You can hear slight vestiges of a southern accent, reflecting his childhood in Georgia. Vocal fry is nearly always apparent when he speaks.
  • Justice Stephen Breyer speaks in what I call the professor’s voice. Its cadences make you feel like you are in his classroom and he is going to explain something to you, in a good-natured and friendly way, that has so far failed to penetrate your thick head.
  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh has a quality of voice that I characterize as “jock”—a slight snarl at times, a self-conscious manliness. I mean nothing disparaging by this, but I have experience of listening to the voices of college-age athletes, many of whom are members of fraternities, and Justice Kavanaugh’s voice is a fine exemplar of that species. He was in fact a minor college athlete and he belonged to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

This brings me to my ongoing dilemma, or perhaps it is a trilemma. How do you distinguish the voices of Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Neil Gorsuch? It speaks poorly of my listening ability to say that they all just sound like guys — but they do.

Two visual aids have finally enabled me to distinguish among the three most of the time. First, I sometimes follow along in the transcript of an argument as I listen and the transcript’s identification of the speaker helps me to associate the voice with the name. Second, I have discovered that in the C-SPAN “videos” of oral argument (you can find them here) there is an attempt to prominently feature the image of the current speaker. Oral argument in the Supreme Court is not filmed, but the C-SPAN version of it is packaged as a video that has this valuable visual component. Of course it is much easier to recognize a person’s voice when you learn it by being able to see their face as they speak.

Here, then, is how I distinguish the soundalike justices:

  • Chief Justice Roberts speaks with a characteristic upbeat tone. Whatever he is talking about, it’s always a beautiful day in his neighborhood. You would be happy to have a voice like his to add a good vibe to any tiresome meeting.
  • Justice Samuel Alito, on the other hand, often sounds to me as if he is in a fit of pique, as if he has reached the end of his patience with the human race. The most recent remark by a lawyer before the Court has just about pushed him over the edge.
  • Justice Neil Gorsuch has, to my mind, the voice of Everyman, and I find little in it that gives me a handle.This may be because Gorsuch and I were born in the same city and grew up in the same state, both of us later getting our higher education far from where we grew up. I find nothing “other” about his voice that would enable me to distinguish it; it seems like he talks just the way I do. But I fancy that his voice is somewhat deeper than those of the two aforementioned justices, and his voice exemplifies vocal fry consistently, while theirs do not.

I recommend listening to SCOTUS oral argument as a great exercise in developing your appreciation for how the law works and the minds of the justices work, based on their erudite speech. If you have any better vocabulary for distinguishing their voices, please speak up in the comments!

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 7th, 11:10 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I apologize for the misspelling of Justice Elena Kagan's surname.
Monday January 10th, 9:22 AM
Excellent commentary. This annotations are of extraordinary value for a learner and expert in the field of lexicon.
Thank you.
Sunday January 16th, 3:58 PM
Comment by: Biomedicus (Maineville, OH)
Hey, great to think about.

But what if you are a person like me who hears voices that aren't real, that are considered hallucinations; yet (Me) the person hearing them have a connection to them in a way that give the voices a realness, an intellect or intelligence, (such as the voices know me, or have a history with me, or can see what I am doing as if seeing me).

I have schizophrenia and have hallucinated voices for over 10 years now. Intermixed along with actual speech from other people or sounds from the wind, birds chirping, water flowing and sloshing around. Along with additional experiences, such as conversations, videos, audio recordings, ect. I get to encounter audible experiences that sometimes I can't tell the difference between real speech and hallucinated voices.

Interestingly enough is that the hallucinated and real speech, each represented with apparent intelligence has a flow to it that guides my life in a very special way. Something to consider about the intelligence behind voices and human speech is the interpretation. Just as in your post, which is quite interesting, I get different affects, attributes, distinguishing features, characteristics, (male, female, other), and I have to filter out some sort of reasoning guiding me through life like teetering on the tightrope of life to determine what, for me, is real and with some effort, determined to be unfortunately unreal.

Thanks for the post,

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