What Is Paralinguistic?

Paralinguistic is the study of vocal signals beyond the verbal message. Some scholars classify paralinguistic as a branch of nonverbal communication.

According to Weitz, ed., “paralinguistics take great concern on how something is said, not on what is said” (1974: 94). This definition shows clearly that paralanguage Opens in new window has a stylistic function. Paralinguistics may thus also be defined as a kind of phonostylisticsOpens in new window.

Scope of Paralinguistic

In his survey of current trends in paralinguistics, Crystal shows that the scope of paralanguage has been defined in seven different ways as including:

  1. Nonhuman as well as human vocalizations Opens in new window,
  2. Nonvocal as well as vocal features of human communication,
  3. All nonsegmental (‘suprasegmental’) features and some segmental ones,
  4. Voice quality as well as (all or most) nonsegmental features,
  5. Only nonsegmental features, but excluding prosodic phonemes and voice quality,
  6. Only a subset of nonsegmental features other than prosodic phonemes and voice quality, and
  7. Certain communicative functions, such as the expression of emotions or personality (1975: 47 – 64).

1 and 2 are very broad definitions of paralanguage. While the first includes acoustic modes of zoosemiotic communication Opens in new window, the second covers the whole field of nonverbal communication.

Language and Paralanguage

Paralinguistics has been conceived in a narrower and in a broader sense. The distinction between language and paralanguage raises the question of the scope of linguistics and phonetics in the study of verbal and vocal messages. The term paralanguage suggests a vast field of communicative phenomena beyond language.

Not all vocal signals beyond language belong to paralanguage. For example, sneezing, yawning Opens in new window, coughing, and snoring are vocal signals that are usually excluded from paralinguistics. These vocal signals are defined as “vocal reflexes” (Crystal 1969: 131) because they are usually uncontrolled and physiologically determined. Lyons characterizes the semiotic status of such vocal reflexes as follows:

  • Although they are signals, in the sense that they are transmitted (for the most part involuntarily) and can be interpreted by the receiver, no one would wish to regard them as being other than external to language.
  • When they occur as physiological reflexes during speech, they merely introduce noise into the channel; and when, by prior individual or cultural convention, they are deliberately produced for the purpose of communication (when, for example, we cough to warn a speaker that he might be overheard by someone approaching), they operate outside and independently of language. (1977: 58)

Human acoustic communication beyond paralanguage (and, of course, music) includes some further phenomena which have not yet been (and perhaps will never be) recognized as an area of semiotic study.

Only Wescott has so far proposed to study this area of “communicative body noise” under the designation of strepistics. Among his examples of “strepitative behavior” are hand-clapping, foot-stamping, face-slapping, tooth-gnashing, whistling, and spitting (1966: 350 – 51).

Typology of Paralanguage

An early influential classification of paralanguage was proposed by Trager (1958; 1961). Trager also developed a system of notation of paralinguistic behavior which has been applied in the transcription of psychiatric interviews.

Trager’s system distinguishes three domains of vocal behavior: voice set, which he considers prelinguistic, voice quality, and vocalizations, all of which he describes as paralinguistic (1958: 3 – 4; cf. Pittenger & Smith 1957).

Voice Set

Voice set, according to Trager (1958), is the idiosyncratic background of speech. It comprises the permanent or quasi-permanent voice characteristics which are due to the speaker’s physiology (age, sex, health, etc.), e.g., timbre, natural pitch height, or volume of the voice. Laver & Trudgill (1979) characterize these voice features as “informative” but not “communicative.” The domain of voice set is not always distinguished from that of voice quality (cf. Fährmann 1960, Crystal 1975: 53).

Voice Quality

Voice qualities are speech variables which characterize a speaker’s “tone of voice” in adjustment to situational factors. Trager classifies them as follows (1958: 5):

  • pitch range and control (spread or narrowed [as in monotone speech])
  • vocal lip control (from hoarseness to openness)
  • glottis control (sharp or smooth transitions)
  • articulatory control (forceful vs. relaxed speech)
  • rhythm control (smooth or jerky)
  • resonance (from resonant to thin)
  • tempo (increased or decreased)

Vocalizations, according to Trager, are “actual specifically identifiable noises (sounds) or aspects of noises” which do not belong to the general background characteristics of speech (1958: 5 – 6.)

Trager distinguishes three kinds of vocalizations:

  • Vocal characterizers which consists when we ‘talk through’ (laughing, crying, snickering, giggling, whimpering, and sobbing; yelling, moaning, groaning, whining, breaking and belching);
  • Vocal qualifiers, i.e., variations of intensity (overloud, oversoft), pitch height (overhigh, overlow), and extent (drawl, clipping), and
  • Vocal segregates which comprises segmental sounds, such as English “uh-uh” for negation, “uh-huh” for affirmation, or the “uh” of hesitation (ibid.).