RES-000-22-0926 - Phonetic and Interactional Features of
Attitude in Everyday Conversation
How do we express our attitudes in everyday talk? According to a prevailing view among
linguists and psychologists, speakers use particular sound patterns so as to convey a
feeling or a response to information from other people. Researchers at the University of
York have found that on the contrary, there is no straightforward mapping between sound
and attitude in everyday conversation. Speakers do not seem to encode attitude by means
of regular phonetic features.
The way you sound
• Part of the research focused on "explicit lexical formulations," or ELFs, in which
a speaker attributes a specific attitude to the other participant in a conversation –
"you sound happy," "don't sound so depressed," and the like. But only seldom is
there any phonetic reason for such ELFs; they have another basis entirely.
• In many instances, the attribution of a particular attitude takes place after a hitch
in the conversation, or after a listener is felt to have committed some kind of
verbal transgression: failing to speak in turn, failing to recognise the speaker's
voice, failing to respond suitably, and so on. An ELF then functions as an implicit
request for the listener to re-examine his or her prior behaviour.
• ELFs also permit a mutual working through of the topic in question. By using the
verb "sound," a speaker can avoid making a direct claim about the other person
("you're very happy," "don't be so depressed," etc.). What matters is not just the
information, but also the interaction between the participants.
When "oh" and "wow" stand alone
• As a response to news from other people, both "oh" and "wow" are commonly
uttered. But their phonetic design is not shaped by whether the news in question is
good or bad. Instead of being used to convey a stance or an attitude, they may
simply demonstrate that the listener is paying attention to the turn-taking
requirements of conversation.
• The usage of "oh" shows a particularly wide variability in phonetic terms.
"Wow," by contrast, is not spoken alone with a final rising pitch; and if it is used
with a rising-falling pitch as a response to bad news, the utterance occurs low on
the speaker's pitch-range. The stand-alone use of "wow," then, comes with certain
phonetic constraints that are not present on "oh."
The significance of extra details
• "Wow" is a very common response to what the speaker believes to be important,
out-of-the-ordinary news. But what happens if a listener does not respond by
saying "wow," or by offering any specific verbal response? The researchers found
that a speaker will go on to add extra details, or will strengthen the telling, until
the listener shows an appropriate reaction. Silence is not accepted as a legitimate
About the Study
The principal researcher was Prof John Local, a linguist at the University of York. He
and Dr Gareth Walker studied the transcripts and audio recordings of about 33 hours of
British and American telephone calls that were made between friends and family
members. Their work combined the rigorous techniques of conversation analysis with
detailed phonetic transcripts of conversations, aiming to employ an integrated and
systematic approach to the phonetics of attitude.
Attitude, phonetics, talk, conversation, response