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The Nature of Vocalisation

It’s an absolute linguistic universe.

What I’m working on right now? I’m very interested in vocal behaviour and one of the things I’m…what I’m doing literally right now is I’m speaking to you, it’s a voluntary vocalisation and actually, it’s an interesting thing, only humans out of the mammals are really good at voluntary, voluntarily vocalising, controlling our voice deliberately.

There’s actually two ways that we can produce speech and vocal sounds, one is this voluntary way and the other is this involuntary route and they’re different neutrally: they go along different systems and parts of the brain and involuntary vocalisations are the sort of thing you do if you drop something on your foot or if somebody makes you laugh or if somebody frightens you and you yelp or scream or laugh or swear, those sorts of things that just seem to just emerge from you.  And I’m very interested in how they’re different because, as I say, the voluntary side of it is very special to humans.  The involuntary things seem to be a lot more like how animals – other mammals – control vocalisations and actually the sounds we make in those states are a lot more like animal calls, so if I laugh or go ‘urgh’, I’m actually producing something that’s a lot more like an animal call than it is like speech.  So I’m very interested in this and this is something that we’ve been, um, trying to come up with ways of collecting voluntary and involuntary vocalisations, so one thing we’ve been doing is making people laugh and we’ve also had a go at making people cry, and we, sort of…it is interesting because you know these genuine emotions as well they, they’re kind of…most of the stuff done in the literature is posed, people look angry or they look scared and that, you know, nobody ever goes and makes somebody angry and scared because that would be unethical.  We’re having a go at trying to look at that sort of aspect of it as well ‘cause then you sort of get to this issue of authenticity, which is also very interesting.  So, that’s one of the big things we’re doing at the moment…really interested in, in this vocal behaviour, the voluntary side of it, the involuntary side of it and how it relates to, sort of, authenticity and emotions.

Something else I’m really interested in and I’m trying to get more of a handle on is conversation, so how we use language to interact with other people, because it’s an absolute linguistic universe: wherever you go in the world people are talking to each other and in fact when you talk to somebody, even if you can’t see them and you don’t know them, you time your interactions with them so that nobody hardly ever talks over each other or interrupts each other and you seem to do this by coordinating your behaviour with each other.  I’m really interested in how we do that, how do you actually pull your speech behaviour in so that it’s coordinating with that other person, ‘cause that seems to be what makes conversation possible and it’s happening in our brains and we don’t really know we’re doing it, so it’s going on in parallel if you like to what we’re aware of when we’re talking to somebody, which is the words we’re saying and what they’re saying, so there’s a whole other system doing that coordination and I want to know more about that.