Sunday, September 26, 2010

emotions and intonation across cultures: misunderstanding

An American Missionary in Taiwan recalls:

"My major difficulty was the way I processed emotion through the vocal variety. I am second-generation Italian-American and I am accustomed to STRESS-ing certain words to add COL-or and EMPH-asis. Unfortunately, this habit of mine unintentionally altered [Taiwanese] tones and consequently changed what I said"

Speech communities may also differ in prototypical meanings assigned to intonational contours. The typical rising intonation of English questions is reserved in most South Asian languages for surprise, while questions in these languages are marked by a rise-fall intonation. As a result, a speaker of AmE asking questions wud sound continuously surprised to his Punjabi-speaking interlocutors, while polite questions from a Hindi speaker may be perceived as rude assertions by speakers of BrE. Speakers of Russian may prosodically misinterpret English politeness for enthusiasm, and enthusiasm for impatience and skepticism. In turn, speakers of English are shown to negatively evaluate English utterances with Russian intonation contours.

The next cluster of factors involves stress and loudness. While overall loudness is an individual characteristic, it is also influenced by the context--in particular, by the distance between interlocutors. Shifts in loudness may signal joy or surprise (look who's HERE!), while a more permanent increase in loudness is characteristic of anger (DON'T YOU RAISE YOUR VOICE AT ME, missy!). Stress, or prominence, refers to a point in a stretch of speech that is more prominent than the surrounding context. The stressed unit, be it a syllable, part of a word, a word, or a phrase, is uttered with a greater amount of energy than the unstressed unit. It may be marked by pitch, amplitude or duration or by all of the above. Emotionality may be signaled by increases or decreases in overall loudness, by stress , or by emphatic stress, that is extra stress marked by more dramatic pitch changes and loundness (That's shocking! That's lovely!). Across languages, stress may be marked in different ways and there may be different affective meanings attached to particular volume levels or types of stress. For instance, speakers of Spanish, where emphatic stress is expressed thru the extra length rather than extra pitch variation, may appear unenthusiastic or 'bored' to speakers of English, where emphatic stress is marked by pitch, length, and volume. In turn, speakers of Russian, a lingo with a more intense and dynamic stress system than Russian may appear 'angry' or 'critical' to English speakers.

The third important cluster of factors involves duration, and thus stress, rhythm, and rate of articulation, that is, the overall tempo of speech. In English n German, faster rate is commonly associated wiht anger and joy, and a slower rate with sadness; neutral utterances or utterances expressing indifference are typically spoken at a faster rate than sad ones. Increases in speed may indicate emotional intensification.


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