Barriers to Progress in Speaker Identification with Comments on the Trayvon Martin Case

Harry Hollien


Linguistics and phonetics overlap in many areas. The essay to follow reviews some of the problems experienced by phoneticians in one of these regions. It may provide some insight for linguists when they are confronted by barriers in their own field. The present example involves individuals who are attempting to identify speakers from voice analysis. The fundamental challenge they face is, of course, caused by the thousands of variables associated with that task. Included here are differences among speakers’ gender, age, size, physiology, language, dialect, psychological/health states, background/education, reason for speaking, situation, environment, configuration of the acoustic channel -- plus many others. Many formal assessment procedures -- both aural-perceptual ones conducted by humans or machine/computer based systems -- have been proposed and/or used for the cited analyses. Unfortunately, however, few have enjoyed particularly high levels of success. Worse yet, reasonable progress has suffered from external impedances; the report to follow will outline some of them. Among the problems considered are: 1) competition (verification vs. identification, from voiceprints), 2) concept disputes 3) the continued undervaluation of relevant evidence and 4) markedly dissimilar philosophies of professionals from different disciplines. A response in the form of a short review of the data and concepts which clearly support the possibility of robust speaker identification is presented. Also included are suggestions as to how to enhance the effectiveness of disciplines such as ours.


speaker identification, automated speech processing, expert witnesses, Trayvon Martin

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