Q: My wife and I were alone in our car and having a general discussion when she lowered her voice and said, “Everyone knows her husband is having an affair.” Has anyone studied this strange behavior in mentioning a sensitive topic?
A: Yes, language scholars have indeed looked into this behavior. The study of pitch, loudness, speed, hesitation, and similar qualities of speech is referred to as “paralinguistics,” and this aspect of communication is called “paralanguage.”
In his 1975 paper “Paralinguistics,” the linguist David Crystal says the “para-” prefix (meaning “beyond” or “outside of”) “was originally chosen to reflect a view that such features as speed and loudness of speaking were marginal to the linguistic system.”
However, Crystal writes, studies in social psychology, psychiatry, sociolinguistics, and other areas “suggest that the vocal effects called paralinguistic may be rather more central to the study of communication than was previously thought.”
“Certainly, observations of people’s everyday reactions to language suggest that paralinguistic phenomena, far from being marginal, are frequently the primary determinants of behaviour in an interaction,” he says.
Although “the most widely recognized function” of paralanguage is for emotional expression, he adds, a “far more important and pervasive” function “is the use of paralinguistic features as markers of an utterance’s grammatical structure.”
In other words, the use of paralanguage in speech replaces the punctuation and spacing that’s so important in making written language intelligible.
Crystal discusses several kinds of paralanguage. An extended low pitch, for example, may be used “as a marker of parenthesis (e.g. ‘My cousin—you know, the one who lives in Liverpool—he’s just got a new job’).”
A rise in loudness may be used “as a marker of increased emphasis (‘I want the red one, not the green one’).”
An increase is speed may indicate “that the speaker wishes to forestall an interruption, or to suggest that what he is saying need not be given careful attention.”
A sentence spoken with a noticeable metrical beat may “suggest irritation, e.g. ‘I really think that John and Mary should have asked.’ ”
The kind of voice-lowering you’re asking about could be considered a marker of parenthesis. Crystal doesn’t cite an example like yours, but other language researchers say a whispered or lowered voice may accompany confidential or embarrassing comments.
In Principles of Phonetics (1994), for example, the linguist John Laver writes that the paralinguistic use of whisper may “signal secrecy and confidentiality.”
And in Simultaneous Structure in Phonology (2014), the linguist D. Robert Ladd writes, “A speaker’s voice may be raised in anger or lowered to convey something confidential.”
The linguist Carlos Gussenhoven, writing in The Phonology of Tone and Intonation (2004), says people may raise their pitch “to express surprised indignation” and “lower it to suggest confidentiality.”
And in a study entitled “The Roles of Breathy/Whispery Voice Qualities in Dialogue Speech” (2008), Carlos Toshinori Ishi, Hiroshi Ishiguro, and Norihiro Hagita say that a “more whispered and low-powered voice quality” may reflect embarrassment.
(The three authors, who specialize in robotics, attempt to apply paralinguistics to synthesized speech.)
We can’t end this without mentioning a book that we came across while researching your question.
In Playing With My Dog Katie: An Ethnomethodological Study of Dog-Human Interaction (2007), the sociologist David Goode discusses his embarrassing “over-reliance on paralinguistic features of vocalization” in relating to his pet.
As the owners of two young golden retrievers, we know what’s he’s ethnomethodologically talking about.