Saturday 1 October 2011

Vocal gestures

If someone calls you a brick, and you have no idea whether to swell with pride or burn with anger (it happened to me), you ask what being a brick means to whoever called you that. But in order to be able to ask, you need to be able to understand that you didn’t understand.

Asking about the meaning of gestures is rather more difficult. We communicate with our whole bodies, whatever the languages that we use in face-to-face interaction, but we appear to assume that our bodies behave in ways that belong to human bodies and not, like word meanings, to cultures. Body language is as much a language as Swahili or Italian, as Desmond Morris showed in his book Bodytalk. A world guide to gestures. Pointing at something with your foot or shrugging your shoulders in response to a question are symbolic behaviours whose meanings are as arbitrary as calling someone a chicken (I think I know what that means, at least in English) or yelling Ai!! instead of &*☁#☠!! when you stub your toe.

Our interlocutors may take the gestures that we use, like the words that we use, to represent what we are and, by extension, to represent the culture (region, country, level of education, habits of politeness, etc., etc.) which they perceive as ours. For better or for worse – an issue to which I’ll come back some other day. First-time visitors to Portugal, for example, regularly ask me why the Portuguese are always angry when they talk to each other. We’re not. Vociferous voices, faces and gestures are just part and parcel of fluent Portuguese-ness.

The meaning of vocal gestures tops the list of difficult things to ask about. We may not understand that we didn’t understand what someone else intended by their tone of voice, including where we may understand it in a way that makes sense to us – which thus becomes the “intended” meaning. This is the domain of prosody, our ways of modulating our vocal resources. I believe we’re doubly lost here, because we’re using spoken language, and we take spoken language to be translatable into print, but we can’t ask our usual glitch-fixer How d’ya spell that?, because prosody is not contemplated in the printed forms of any language. Boring symbols like ?, !, commas, ..., possibly ?!, and so on, tell us as much about speech prosody as the letter ‘s’ about its pronunciation – which is why, by the way, the current flurry of *-*, ;-p, =[, ROFL, and company is doing such a nice job of providing us with printed clues to body language. Plus you can’t ask about spellings with small children, who can’t spell at all, who have no idea at all that grown-ups like asking questions about language uses, and whose multilingual acrobatics, gestural or otherwise, are therefore known to cause much chagrin. How do you spell your voice, indeed?

Has-no-spelling, ergo does-not-matter is probably the reason why prosody passes under silence in standard school language teaching. Those language courses that do include pronunciation regularly feature it after everything else that needs to be “covered” in the syllabus, as if the sound of spoken languages complemented their vocabulary and their syntax. But, as regularly, “pronunciation” means vowels and consonants (and semi-such), which do have some printed representation. I once wrote, in a paper titled Prosodic mixes, that if pronunciation has been said to be the Cinderella of language matters, then prosody must be Cinderella’s broomstick.

Prosody is not the cherry on the cake of our uses of a language. It is a necessary component of speech, in the sense that you can’t say anything, in any language, without colouring it with rhythm, pitch, stress. Prosody is also the signature of a language or a language variety, in the sense that if you speak French, say, with French vowels and consonants, and English prosody, you sound like you’re speaking English, not French. And if you’re actually speaking English when you think you’re speaking French, then you’re meaning English meanings with your voice, not French ones.

The issue is not just that your uses of your new language may be unintelligible to your interlocutors because your prosody doesn’t make sense: the issue is also that you may be intelligible in ways which you don’t suspect you are, because your prosody does make sense, though not the sense that it makes to you. For better or for worse, here too. If the use of the word brick had meant something to me, I would have assigned to it the meaning that was familiar to me. Likewise, if someone uses a tone of voice which, to me, means huffiness, then I’ll assume that the speaker is (being) huffy, rather than wonder about that person’s awareness of the uses of prosody in whatever language they’re using at the moment.

Vocal gestures are at the core of language uses, and this is why prosody is the first thing that we master, as we learn our languages. With multilingual children, prosody can also tell us quite a few interesting things about being multilingual. I’ll give a few examples next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual beginnings. Saturday 8th October 2011.

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