The terms “voice,” “prosody,” and “laughter” refer primarily to vocal, nonlinguistic aspects of communication. Human communication is rich with meaning conveyed through multiple channels, often divided into verbal (language, words, and symbols) and nonverbal. It may be tempting to think of nonverbal communication as primarily visual, but speakers convey much meaning vocally, too. Considering prosody, voice, and laughter together may promote a misleading view that spoken language operates somewhat independently from such paralinguistic indicators (also called supra-segmentals in linguistics). This view has its origins in scholarly traditions that begin with studying the printed word. A different starting point is interaction, where all features of message production work integrally to contribute to meaning, which participants negotiate moment by moment. The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure captured this distinction between studying langue, the abstract system that a particular group of people internalizes, and parole, actual speaking practices.
Prosody and voice features such as pitch, intonation, emphasis, volume, rhythm, timing, and tempo contribute to the emergent meaning of utterances. For example, intonation at a possible transition point (where change from one speaker to another is relevant) helps mark an utterance as a completed question (upward intonation) or declarative statement (downward intonation) or as still in progress (continuing intonation). In this and various other ways prosodic features help shape turn-construction and turn-taking. They also play a role in action design and sequence organization matters that arise routinely in interaction. Prosodic features indicate perceived confidence and attractiveness and mark aspects of individual identity such as gender, race, and class.
Under some circumstances speakers will tend to adjust prosodic features to be more convergent with or divergent from those of their interlocutors. These changes may reflect rapport or status. Prosody and vocal patterns make up different accents and dialects of spoken languages. Prosody and voice also mark attitude and affect in interaction. Such features have long been of interest to teachers and scholars of performance, both for the stage and professions that rely on effective vocal performance and for culturally grounded studies of performance genres around the world. Studies of speech play and verbal art pay attention to performance elements that give spoken language heightened drama, involvement, ritual value, aesthetic value, or emotional impact (for example, rhyme, repetition, and rhythm).
Laughter has long drawn attention for its distinctive place in the human communicative repertoire. Philosophers from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present have sought to understand why people laugh, although such investigations often reveal ultimate concern with what makes something funny. However, much laughter in interaction does not respond to humor or anything particularly funny but serves other social functions, such as showing friendliness or affiliation. Ethological researchers have studied how human laughter resembles and differs from similar behaviors exhibited by other higher primates. Chimpanzees and baboons, for example, show a relaxed, open-mouthed face and make a reiterated uh-uh-uh sound when playing. Human laughter differs physiologically (enabled in part by our upright, bipedal posture and breathing apparatus) and shows a greater variety and subtlety of social functions. Researchers in psychologically grounded traditions have sought to understand the mental mechanisms that underlie laughter and some of the social variable that may prompt someone to laugh in certain contexts.
Although laughs have no semantic content, they routinely occur closely intertwined with talk and help shape overall meaning. Social interactional researchers document laughter’s placement, production features, and workings within all kinds of talk, ranging from casual conversation to meetings, medical interviews, and televised political debates. Laughter is finely organized, precisely placed, and subject to interpretation based on its acoustic properties and sequential location. People often laugh together, and such shared laughter routinely begins with one person inviting another to laugh along (Jefferson 1979). Whether one is the first to laugh or joins in both shapes and reflects issues of local relationship and role (e.g., whether one is the butt of a tease, or is affiliating with someone else). Researchers in nearly all traditions have found fascination with laughter’s dual nature: it may signal alignment and bring people together, but it may also display hostility and be used mockingly or derisively. Whether someone is laughing at or laughing with another in interaction gets worked out according to specific cues. Laughter itself may be ambiguous in the extent to which it displays going along with what is happening or resisting it. This makes laughter a valuable social tool for negotiating identities and relationships (Glenn 2003). Laughter conveys meaning visually as well as aurally, but most social interactional studies have attended primarily to its aural features.
Different systems for transcribing prosody, voice, and laughter carry different assumptions about what is important to notice and how features interrelate with each other. The conversation analytic transcription system developed by Gail Jefferson (see Atkinson & Heritage 1984) uses symbols on the keyboard to note prosodic features such as changes in pitch and intonation, volume, emphasis, and tempo. Laughter is not merely noted but actually transcribed. This allows analysis of how variations in the acoustic structure of laughter – for example, a closed-mouth “hmh” contrasted to an open-mouthed “hah” – contribute to what it is doing at a moment in interaction.
- Atkinson, J. M., & Heritage, J. (eds.) (1984). Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Couper-Kuhlen, E., & Selting, M. (1996). Prosody in conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Glenn, P. (2003). Laughter in interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Jefferson, G. (1979). A technique for inviting laughter and its subsequent acceptance declination. In G. Psathas (ed.), Everyday language: Studies in ethnomethodology. New York: Irvington, pp. 79– 96.
- Saussure, F. de (1985). Course in general linguistics (trans. R. Harris). LaSalle, IL: Open Court. (Original work published 1915).