Affective voices: are emotions the key to language?
As part of his work as poet-in-residency at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, James Wilkes invited poet Denise Riley and psychologist Disa Sauter to discuss voices and emotions as part of his second instalment of public conversation, focusing on the bridge that connects emotions with language.
We are perfectly capable of communicating with one another when we’re in sync with the language we are using to voice our thoughts. However, a speaker’s utterance alone isn’t enough to be certain of what they mean. Monotonous dialogues are not enough to convey a speaker’s emotion: as Denise Riley pointed out during the hour-long session, “speaking includes emotive power of prosody, for example half-dead metaphors.” She went on to consider that emotions are not exploited by language but, rather, are embodied by it. For instance, an unhappy person’s use of lexis would revolve around his “dissatisfaction” to a certain situation; his praise to the situation would make no sense unless irony comes into play. His semantics would give us the clear idea of what it is that he is feeling. Interestingly, the poet questioned the whole process of vocal expressions asking whether we speak the language or language speaks us. “I speak language first as language speaks me. I speak words or words speak me.”
Disa Sauter also discussed how speech changes depending on the emotions of the speaker. She highlighted the powerfulness of emotions in producing facial expressions in parallel with changes to dialogue– raised eyebrows and a shrill scream when confronted by fear, a frown and a shaky voice while nervous.
The expressiveness of emotion using voices depends on the context of the language, speech prosody and non-verbal vocalisation, Disa Sauter argued. She put forward a notion that the emotions expressed via the content of language were usually culture-specific. As she explained, the term “broken heart” – often used to describe immense sorrow – may mean nothing to a person from different background whose culture sees “kidney” as the supposed organ capable of feeling.
Jamie Wilkes will host one more public conversation between psychologists and novelist Charles Fernyhough and film-maker Shona Illingworth, discussing the inner voices and its development. It will be held on Friday 11th May 2012, 7-8pm at Arstsadmin Café in London.