Paralanguage refers to verbal communications that have meaning but are not part of the system of words and grammatical rules we call language. Paralanguage includes such elements as pitch, amplitude, rate, and voice quality. Laughter, imitatitive speech, and prosody are also forms of paralanguage. Paralanguage emphasizes the fact that people convey meaning not only in what they say, but also in how they say it.
Paralinguistics is a crucial component in all human communication. In any verbal interaction, we employ sets of culturally constituted codes to make a series of inferential judgments that interpret what is being said. These interpretations occur at several levels, including linguistic and paralinguistic, as well as kinesic, musical, interactional and others.
Paralinguistic communication often operates as a metamessage to alert communicants as to how to interpret a message. For example, in American English, a simple change in tone and stress can determine whether a linguistic statement such as “What a lovely dress” is a compliment or an insult. Paralinguistic elements are also used to initiate and sustain verbal interaction.
Paralanguage is believed by many scientists to be a survival of the gesture-call systems used by other primates to indicate current states of being, such as contentment, hunger, irritability, restlessness, sleepiness, and so forth. Yet, although many paralinguistic elements are universal, the ways they are used are culturally defined. For example, American English speakers use a sing-song rhythm to indicate mockery, but this rhythm is normative in many South Asian languages. Some Mayan Tzeltal speakers use a creaky voice for complaints and commiserations, and falsetto for polite greetings and formal conversation.
Moreover, verbal elements that are used as paralinguistic features in one speech community may be linguistic elements in another. Pitch is primarily a paralinguistic feature for most English speakers, but it is primarily a grammatical feature in many Asian speech communities.
The nature and breadth of paralinguistic communication varies not only across cultures but across modes of communication. The choice of medium used for communication—speaking, writing, photography, motion picture—enables and constrains the capacity of a message to carry paralinguistic cues. Face-to-face communication has the highest paralinguistic density. Telephone and recorded conversation carry verbal paralanguage but miss paralinguistic-kinesic pairings. Written text carries the least paralinguistic information, although there are creative alternatives such as the “emoticons” widely used in e-mail to indicate emotional states.
The significance of how a loss of paralinguistic information can affect meaning has been emphasized in studies of written communication such as court transcription or journalism. Although both forms of writing lay great emphasis on quotation, failure to capture nuances of speech can cause a statement to take on a very different meaning. The classic example is the cry of anger and incredulity by a crime suspect, “I did it?” being recorded as a confession: “I did it.”
Defining the boundaries of paralinguisitic communication is difficult. Paralanguistic communication is closely related to kinesic communication which includes gesture, body posture, and other nonverbal forms of communication. Often, particular gestures are routinely accompanied by particular sounds; such pairings may not have the same meanings when separated.
Sometimes it is even difficult to clearly differentiate the paralinguistic from the linguistic. English uses pitch both grammatically (as when we signal a question) and to signal emotional meaning. While many forms of emphasis are outside of the language system, others, like contrastive stress (This is the one) and question intonation (Is this the one?) are grammatical in nature. Some verbal expressions intended to indicate natural states—in English, for example, the sounds we indicate by uh-oh, whew or ouch—are so conventionalized as to be part of the lexicon.
Paralinguistic communication is also sometimes distinguished from extralinguistic communication, which refers to oral noises like teeth chattering or yawning. Such verbal communications are meaningful, because they index physical states, but their meaning is involuntary. Likewise, changes in voice caused by old age or by nasal congestion would be defined as extralinguistic.
One problem with the distinction between paralinguistic and extralinguistic communication is that it relies on the capacity of the observer to determine whether a communicative act is intentional or natural. This is especially tricky because many paralinguistic communications are mimetic—that is, they imitate natural states. An English speaker may be unable to articulate the difference between /p/ and /b/ because she has a cold, or she may be intentionally confusing the two to sound as if she has a cold.
Although paralanguage has never received as much scholarly attention or popular interest as kinesics, the significance of paralanguage has had a far-reaching impact on linguistic anthropology. Among other things, paralinguistic evidence contributed to the rise of the ethnography of communication, which takes speech communities, speech acts, and “ways of speaking”—rather than languages—as its units of analysis. In addition, there have been a series of creative efforts by anthropologists to capture paralinguistic elements in their ethnographic descriptions of speech.
Because paralanguage is so intimately intertwined with linguistic, kinesic, and other levels of communication, it is rarely studied by itself. But paralinguistic phenomena remain of key interest to anthropological linguistics.
- Crystal, D. & Quirk, R. (1964). Systems of prosodic and paralinguistic features in English. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter.
- Key, M. R. (1975). Paralanguage and kinesics. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
- Poyatos, F. (1993). Paralanguage: A linguistic and interdisciplinary approach to interactive speech and sound. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Tedlock, D. (1983). The spoken word and the work of interpretation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.