Sometime in the summer, Juensung and I had a talk about intonation and its role in verbal communication. He asked me these questions, preliminarily:
1. So, how exactly do people manage to infuse their voice with emotions?
2. It’s been determined that facial expressions are the same across cultures; are vocal inflections?
3. What inflection means what?
4. What tone or pitch conveys what feeling?
I’d explored some ideas regarding imagistic speech earlier this year, and was prompted by his thoughts to consider the fact that we should ask things of two genuinely different natures. His first question deals with speech production mechanisms (or, if we interpret it in a more meta way, our understanding and command of the nuances of “emotion delivery” via speech) and their relationships with emotion, while the latter two concern themselves with speech comprehension and its intersections with emotion.
Infusing one’s voice with emotions ultimately reduces to varying many aspects of one’s speech; that much is clear. Not so much, to my understanding, is definitively known about how precisely certain variations in speech are discerned by listeners. Understandably, progress has been made, but questions like the one I posed earlier this year pertaining to anything involving complex kinaesthetic imaging are not readily answered. Hearing – converting from a space–time pattern of vibrations in the basilar membrane to a spatial–temporal pattern of firings on the auditory nerve – isn’t that much of a challenge for humans, but understanding precisely how variations in a sound’s properties are registered and processed within the brain is a considerably more difficult business.
This is partially true because we can’t analyze solely one facet of a sound in trying to determine how it will be perceived, because perception of emotion does not reduce to solely perception of varying intonation. Whilst intonation is definitely a factor in conveying emotion, I’m not certain it’s the sole factor that can be examined: other things like vocab. choice, volume, speed, frequency of repetition, et cetera heavily influence how emotions register; then, we have to take into account considerations of a not so linguistic nature (namely, the hearer’s physiology and psychology). Perhaps a good question to begin with would be “Does intonation ultimately play a notably large role in varying emotions when other factors are kept constant?”
I can try to safely answer Question Two, given my limited experience with varied languages. Specific patterns of sound change to denote emotion most certainly aren’t universal – albeit that we’ve the general notions of terminal and nonterminal intonation contours, for example, variations in a sound’s pitch are used in other ways, too. However, I think we can easily modify this question: do most cultures inflect to indicate a change in emotion? All cultures are obviously capable of showcasing emotion via speech, so if not intonation, what is used to signal a change in emotion? If one specific pattern of intonation means two different things in two different languages, and one hearer understands both instances of the pattern in both languages correctly, then what does this indicate about the human ability to perceive and classify intonation? Is it not a given pattern of intonation but rather the fact that pitch or loudness is being changed that causes the same brain activations? If so, how do we distinguish between patterns of intonation in any single language, if there exists any language within which they are atrociously subtle?
I’d like to ask a couple of other things, namely:
1. Is it possible that our familiarity with the stylistics, syntax, and general structuring of sentences in a given language would allow us to create some form of audio imaging integral to our being able to correctly interpret patterns of intonation? That, in other words, we partially anticipate these patterns on the basis of our understanding of sentence structure? Is an English First Language speaker more quickly capable of correctly interpreting English patterns of intonation than a well-established E.S.L. speaker?
2. Most – if not all – languages use changes in pitch pragmatically as intonation, but tonal languages also use intonation for distinguishing between meanings. How does intonation work in some that possess less readily differentiable tones?
3. How does all this manifest itself in amusia? What does the fact that amusia can be both congenital and acquired tell us here?