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Prosody

The term, prosody, refers to the musical aspects of speech, including intonation, rhythm, pitch changes and non-linguistic sounds. Conversations are a mix of real language and non-linguistic sounds and gestures. Much of the sound-emitting behavior observed in human conversations is old primate behavior. Chimpanzees could trade places with humans and feel quite at home. Children at play, for example, interact with a continuous sequence of sounds as they run, jump, squat, push, pull, and hit. Some of the sounds are single or double word commands. Brief sentences are uttered, usually shorter that 6 syllables. Shouts, shrieks, laughter and occasional cries or crying complete the cacophony of play.

The non-linguistic sound content of human interactions is important, sometimes more important than the linguistic content. Nonlinguistic sound production establishes and sustains group cohesion and is linked to prosody, especially the intonation of words. Conversations are often less linguistic and more prosodic with expressive sounds and gestures contributing much of the meaning conveyed. Conversation is about group dynamics. A successful conversation has several qualities.

Conversations may resemble operas with solos, duets and choruses. When people converse together they follow an implicit script that consists of innate sound-making abilities and specific content they have practiced as part of their social learning. The decoding of prosody appears to be a specific brain function. Grandjean et al reported two functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments showing enhanced responses in the superior temporal sulcus for angry prosody.

They stated: “This emotional enhancement was voice specific, unrelated to isolated acoustic amplitude or frequency and distinct from any concomitant task-related attention modulation. Attention and emotion seem to have separate effects on stimulus processing, reflecting a fundamental principle of human brain organization shared by voice and face perception.”

I overheard a teenage male talking to friends in a coffee shop. His speech was rapid, rather loud and from a distance you might surmise that he had a lot to say. When I sat closer and listened to his monologue, I was fascinated by the lack of meaningful content. His speech was more of rap session with frequent cadence words and exclamations. He gestured strenuously as he said:” “right, you know what I mean, yah… I said I was going, right? And, like, he said stay longer, man -right? Like, no...”He used the “f” word quite often. The specific linguistic content of his monologue of over 10 minutes in duration could be written in a few sentences, but the nonlinguistic content-- the prosody, swearing, laughter, grunts and gestures contributed to the social value of his effort exists before and outside of semantics. His audience seemed attentive and followed his performance with a chorus of exclamations, grunts, laughter and gestures. I thought I had time traveled to some remote African savannah 200,000 years ago.

In another café conversation, three women and a man in their fifties behaved as if they were performing an opera. Their speech had musical qualities with tonal variations, rhythm and overall a sense of composition. When I sat closer, I learned that they were gossiping about church affairs. The man with a loud voice repeated the phrase” in Gods’ Kingdom” in a deep baritone voice. One of the sopranos kept referring to the “Lord’s Work.” The content of the conversation turned out to be disappointing gossip about another man who was not doing the Lord’s work with as much insight and skill as the local group. One woman exclaimed in a high pitched recitative that she was tired of so and so’s “bullshit” and claimed that he had been preaching the gospel in a false and misleading manner for 20 years. The baritone replied repeatedly, “in God’s Kingdom” and the soprano, “The Lord’s Work”.

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Human Nature
The Good Person
Pieces of the Puzzle
The Sound of Music
Surviving Human Nature
Language and Thinking
I and Thou
Emotions and Feelings
Neuroscience Notes
Children and Family
Intelligence and Learning
Religion for 21st Century


The Psychology, Neuroscience and Philosophy series was developed by Persona Digital Books. The books are copyright; all rights to reproduction by any means are reserved. We encourage readers to quote and paraphrase topics from Language and Thinking published online and expect proper citations to accompany all derivative writings. The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books. Current edition 2015 for download.