In a Manner of Speaking

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When we speak, we do more than just talk. IStock Photos.

When humans communicate, laughter plays a key role in comprehension.

Cecilia Ford is a linguist, but she is just as interested in how people say things as she is in what they say.

When we speak, we do more than just talk: we tell stories, and we convey emotion. And, thankfully, we sometimes laugh, which may be more important and complex as a communication tool than most of us realize.

Ford, a UW professor of English and sociology, is collaborating with University of Colorado linguistics professor Barbara Fox to study what is known as speech-laugh, when speech is infused with the sounds and body movements of laughter. Many researchers study facial expression, body movement, and linguistics separately, but Ford says there is a lot we don’t know about how these systems work together.

“Linguistics, in my perspective, is taking a long time to catch up with looking at language and the body,” Ford says.

Ford and Fox have looked at what they call reciprocated laughter, where one speaker uses speech-laugh to sell what he or she is saying as laughable and gets laughter in return. One recording they studied is a phone call during which one woman tells a friend, “Sweetheart? … I’ve got a minor emergency.” The caller continues — with her laughter beginning to distort her voice — saying, “None of my pants fit.” Both women dissolve into gales of mirth as she finishes her revelation.

“As messy as interaction looks and seems, it’s very orderly,” Ford says. “We always find that people are actually doing things very precisely, so just overlapping a little here rather than letting [the speaker] end without laughing with her is really important.”

On the flip side, Ford is also studying laughter that isn’t reciprocated or instances when a speaker uses laughter to mitigate a delicate or awkward situation.

“It softens it in some way. You can be saying something negative or [be] casting someone in a negative light, and you can modulate it by putting laughter on top,” Ford says.

How does Ford find conversations to study? Not in the laboratory. She collects video and audio of laughter that occurs in the course of meetings and less formal conversations, including telephone calls, from colleagues and friends.

“I have a collection of my dad’s laughs,” Ford says. “He cracks me up, and it’s just fun to listen to him — I’m not using it for research.”

Published in the Summer 2010 issue

Tags: Humanities, Research

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