I am wondering, isn't there any brief and common adverb (adjective plus -ly) in English that would enable me saying, e.g.

The transcript is imperfect because over lengthy periods people were speaking very xxxxx-ly

meaning: they did not speak loud enough to be intelligible on the record. They spoke with too low voices. Of course, I could say "... are speaking with too low voices", but I find this inconvenient: why use three words when one could do?

In German, I would simply say "... weil sie zu leise sprechen". I am a bit puzzled that in English I need to use complicated expressions for such a simple thing as the opposite of "speaking loudly".

I suppose, saying "they are speaking lowly" would be misleading. Right?

Note: there are related questions in English.Stackexchange, but none of them focussing my exact problem, as far as I see.

Later addition:

I am adding information here because the question got closed with a notification on alleged lack of preliminary research. Well, so, here are my preliminary attempts to come up with a solution based on a) my active dictionary of English b) various other dictionaries.

  • quietly - Problem: my understanding is, that "quietly" carries a positive connotation: It would be an indicator of being a person of good upbringing to speak quietly (instead of loudly); in my context of audio records of research interviews it is however a negative thing to speak too quietly. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • muttering/mumbling: these describe certain ways of speaking, usually of course in a low voice, but also with e.g. a lack of physical movement of the speach organs. In my context "muttering" or "mumbling" would be over-specific. Moreover, I fear that using such words I would offend my client (to whom I want to communicate the reason for the imperfect transcript). I do not want to tell him "You were mumbling" because a) he was not actually mumbling, he simply spoke with very low voice and b) even if he did it would be too confrontational to use this very word, I believe.

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  • 8
    Soft(ly) is the word in English. It's a metaphor, but it's used in a soft voice, or speak softly, both meaning the opposite of loud(ly). – John Lawler Aug 27 at 15:23
  • Quietly? I think it will do – Omega Krypton Aug 28 at 1:02

The German phrase "weil sie zu leise sprechen" can be directly translated as "because they were speaking too softly" or "too quietly".

The opposite of loud is quiet and quietly is a perfectly valid adverb.

  • 5
    In British English, I would say the commonest opposite of "loud" is "soft", not "quiet". "Quiet" seems more idiomatic as the opposite of "noisy". – alephzero Aug 27 at 20:09
  • 3
    It's common in printed transcripts to see square-bracketed comments such as [indistinct] or [inaudible]. Such as, "We're going to see Peter, Paul and [indistinct] on the [indistinct] of May and then [long indistinct period as train passes] right?". In an introduction you could explain that the subjects were speaking softly (or quietly), that there was background noise, that people were talking over each other, that the recording quality was poor, etc. – CCTO Aug 27 at 22:10
  • @alephzero, what you said applies to American English also, in my judgment. I think there is a temptation to pick "quietly" because it's more unambiguous when there is no context at all. But in real life of course there generally is a context. – Mark Foskey Aug 28 at 3:04

You could say inaudibly

not audible; incapable of being heard.

other synonyms might be softly or quietly

or indistinctly

Not clear or sharply defined

Faintly could work.

In a faint or almost imperceptible degree; very slightly; in faint tones; without vividness or distinctness.

"They were speaking faintly," or "they were speaking in faint tones" would both portray your meaning of the opposite of "loudly." Or you could even use "faintly" to describe how you're hearing them, as in "speaking so you could faintly hear."

  • 1
    I very much like your solution of "faintly" and will most probably use from now on. I still wait for more answeres before I decide which to give the "accepted answer" mark. – Christian Geiselmann Aug 28 at 9:24

Although a famous poem, Sweet and Low, uses low to describe sound, generally, 'low' is ambiguous when used to describe sound: Do you mean low pitch, or low volume?

In music scores, the terms forte and piano are commonly translated as loudly and softly.

Unintelligibly is a valid word to use here.

in an unintelligible manner
He was muttering away to himself, unintelligibly.

You sort of stumbled on this yourself: they did not speak loud enough to be intelligible, therefore it was unintelligible.


However, I do agree with the other answers which both suggested "softly/quietly". This is more idiomatic to use in this scenario, and also the exact antonym of speaking loudly.

It is, however, less specific. It seems you want to express both the volume and the fact that you couldn't understand it. Neither option entails both:

  • You can be unintelligibly while being loud.
  • You can be understood while being quiet.

However, the context of the sentence can help here.

People were speaking very quietly.

That doesn't mean that you didn't understand them.

The transcript is imperfect because over lengthy periods people were speaking very quietly.

The context makes it quite clear that they must have been unintelligible when they were speaking quietly, since you're using that to justify why the trancript is imperfect. Logically speaking, the only explanation here is that they were speaking so quiet that you couldn't understand them.

The transcript is imperfect because over lengthy periods people were muttering. The transcript is imperfect because over lengthy periods people were mumbling.

  • While these words might fit, it is best to include the definition with a source to make a good answer. – Skooba Aug 28 at 12:02

protected by tchrist Aug 27 at 23:41

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