Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Whats Of Paralanguage

Paralanguage is what social scientists use to describe nonverbla, vocal messages. You can understand vocal cues by considering how the meaning of a simple sentence can change just by shifting the emphasis from word to word. Here's a 20 minutes long video of an episode of comedy series 'Still Standing' but just skip to 10:00 to see how paralanguage is used between Judy and Bill's conversation over a lost ticket.

Here is how it went:
Judy: (unable to stand guilt any longer) Alright, alright! I lost the tickets!
Bill: (talking to Fitz) Hear that, Fitz? She lost them.
Judy: They were in my gym bag and they disappeared! Isn't that right, Marion?
Marion: (confused) This is making me very nervous.
Bill: So you're saying that you lost the tickets. (pointing at Judy) You lost the tickets. You lost the tickets.
Judy: You are just saying the same thing over and over again, emphasizing different words each time!

The tickets were for the Rolling Stones concert for their wedding anniversary (that's why it's such a big deal).
So from the example above, we can see that the first time Bill said that, he was emphasizing that Judy lost the tickets. Then he emphasized on 'lost', making her sound irresponsible. Last he emphasized on 'the' tickets, saying that it isn't just ANY ticket but Rolling Stones.

One can distinguish the following aspects of speech signals and perceived utterances:
  • Perspectival aspects

Speech signals that arrive at a listener’s ears have acoustic properties that may allow listeners to localize the speaker (distance, direction). Sound localization functions in a similar way also for non-speech sounds. The perspectival aspects of lip reading are more obvious and have more drastic effects when head turning is involved.

  • Organic aspects

The speech organs of different speakers differ in size. As children grow up, their organs of speech become larger and there are differences between male and female adults. The differences concern not only size, but also proportions. They affect the pitch of the voice and to a substantial extent also the format frequencies, which characterize the different speech sounds. The organic quality of speech has a communicative function in a restricted sense, since it is merely informative about the speaker. It will be expressed independently of the speaker’s intention.

  • Expressive aspects

The properties of the voice and the way of speaking are affected by emotions and attitudes. Typically, attitudes are expressed intentionally and emotions without intention, but attempts to fake or to hide emotions are not unusual. Expressive variation is central to paralanguage. It affects loudness, speaking rate, pitch, pitch range and, to some extent, also the formant frequencies.

  • Linguistic aspects

These aspects are the main concern of linguists. Ordinary phonetic transcriptions of utterances reflect only the linguistically informative quality. The problem of how listeners factor out the linguistically informative quality from speech signals is a topic of current research.

In text-only communication such as email, chatrooms and instant messaging, paralinguistic elements can be displayed by emotions, font and color choices, capitalization and the use of non-alphabetic or abstract characters. Nonetheless, paralanguage in written communication is limited in comparison with face-to-face conversation, sometimes leading to misunderstandings.


"Paralanguage" 2004. Wikipedia. Web. June 6th 2009.


Yang Su Ying

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