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Speech and Audience

Speech and Audience

One of the most important factors in determining our language is the audience and the group we are with. This refers not only to the actual selection of words we use, but also our paralanguage, which is the term used to describe factors such as stress, pitch, speed and tone that also have an effect on what we mean. By rising of pitch at the end of a sentence can transform it into a question, and the general tone of the sentence can indicate the emotion of the speaker. Scherer carried out an experiment where he adjusted these features of a sentence that had been recorded, and asked people to identify the emotions being communicated on the recording, showing that people answered very differently when these features changed.

When it comes to adjusting speech style to audience, we appear to have a collection of preprogramed styles ready to use in different occasions, which we have learnt as we have grown up. For example, most people will use shorter words and speak more slowly when talking to children. Brown and Fraser suggest that it is the combination of both the scene, and the characteristics of the participants that will determine speech style, however, since these are subjective (they will be different based on who you ask), speech style will in fact be determined by how the talker perceives these factors. For example, one person may define a situation as a formal one, while another may define the same situation as informal. Often, this process will work in reverse as well, since we have the ability to choose location to suit our needs and the kind of language we want to use there. If we want an informal chat, we are unlikely to choose to do it in a big work meeting.

Within speech there are easily recognisable social markers, such as perhaps most obviously accents. When we listen to an American talk, we can usually tell where they are from without having to ask. This means that we can immediately make judgements about them based on their background. In social psychology, the matched-guise technique has been used to investigate how much we judge people based on their speech style. This involves playing short speech extracts to participants which differ in style, but not in content. The extracts are then rated on status variables such as intelligence and competence, and solidarity variables, such as friendliness and warmth. In Britain, the standard language variety of Received Pronunciation, or Queen’s English tends to score higher on status variables, but alternatively, non-standard accents, such as regional accents tend to score more highly on solidarity variables.

Of course, the way we view these different accents and speech styles is completely based on stereotypes, and variation between people with different accents is in fact probably very limited. However these results suggest that there are both positive and negative ways in which people view all accents and that rather than changing one’s speech style completely as Eliza Doolittle does in ‘My Fair Lady’, the real skill for making a good impression is to learn how to adjust one’s speech to different audiences and situations.


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