Sunday, February 17, 2008


Paralanguage refers to the non-verbal elements of communication used to modify meaning and convey emotion. Paralanguage may be expressed consciously or unconsciously, and it includes the pitch, volume, and, in some cases, intonation of speech. Sometimes the definition is restricted to vocally-produced sounds. The study of paralanguage is known as paralinguistics.

The non-technical term tone of voice means the same thing as vocal qualifiers. There are various things that can vary, and that affect our perception of tone of voice; increasing loudness or softness (of a syllable, word phrase or sentence) is one obvious one.

A second set of vocal qualifiers involves raised or lowered pitch, which can convey things like fear, anxiety or tenseness, or designate a question.

Third, there's spread register and squeezed register which refers to the spreading or compressing of the time interval between the pitches when one speaks.

Another is rasp, or openness, which has to due to with the muscular tensions in the larynx when someone speaks. A tenseness will result in a more raspy type of utterance for example, a kind of choked sound, while openness is the opposite.

Then there's drawling or clipping which is associated somewhat with accent, and whether the speaker is drawing out individual syllables or clipping them. This is most noticeable if you compare a native English speaker to someone who has learned French, or German first.

Finally, tempo can be increased or decreased. Speaking quickly tends to communicate urgency or a high emotional state. Slow tempos give the impression of uncertainty. It's worth nothing that interpreting all of these vocal qualifiers requires knowing the speaker's baseline communication.

Vocal differentiators refer to another way that how one says something can be influence by how it is said. Examples of vocal differentiators are crying, laughing and breaking, where breaking refers to speaking in a broken or halting manner. Clearly a phrase uttered by a crying person will mean something different than once said by a laughing person.

Vocal identifiers refer to the small sounds we make that are not necessarily words per se, but have meaning. For example, ah-hah, un-huh, and huh-uh.

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