LINGUIST List 7.148

Tue Jan 30 1996

Sum: Hostility markers

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin, Summary: Hostility markers

Message 1: Summary: Hostility markers

Date: Tue, 30 Jan 1996 10:51:39 +0600
From: George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: Summary: Hostility markers
I recently posted a query as to whether there exists <a> a mechanism for
the objective measurement of hostility in spoken English (as expressed by
acoustic stress), and <b> a unit of measurement for same comparable to the
erg or the calorie. Among the positions taken in responses were: Hostilty
in English is not expressed by acoustic/phonetic stress, therefore the
question is vacuous; yes, hostility in English is expressed by stress, but
no measuring mechanism or unit exists; yes, hostility in English is
expressed by stress, and there *is* a measuring mechanism and/or unit.
Given this lack of consensus among the experts, it's not surprising that
the general public is baffled. My thanks to those who responded,

lenellucsu.Colorado.EDU (Elizabeth Lenell)
PICARDVAX2.CONCORDIA.CA (Marc Picard) Ahlen) (Peter Daniels) (Dane Archer) (Mark Liberman) (John Coleman) (Michael Dobrovolsky) (Anthony J. Vitale) (Kathi Taylor) (Timothy Jay) (Kurt Godden)

Minor clarifications to answer questions that came with the responses, and
to provide context:
 (1) I (and others in medical comunication) use the term "hostility" as a
cover term for a variety of negative emotions, because it seems to cover
the broadest range -- and because it is the term used in medical literature
for the component of "Type A" behavior that has been proved to be a risk
factor for heart disease. It is a "technical" term, in that sense.

(2) Most of the people I work with are physicians and therapists (never
linguists), and they are totally unwilling to sit still for detailed
explanations of terms and concepts in linguistics; I try to be as accurate
as possible within the constraints this poses. The subject is a very
serious issue in psychoneuroimmunology and in medicine in general, where
failure to understand what's going on in verbal interactions can lead to
mortality, morbidity, inadequate performance in the medical setting, and
large malpractice suits. More than 70 percent of malpractice suits in this
country are for Malpractice Of The Mouth.

(3) I have been working with hostility in spoken American Mainstream
English since the 1960s, and one thing I feel very certain of is that it is
not marked by the *words* used. Every beginning drama student is expected
to be able to take an emotionally empty word like "goldfish" and say it in
such a way that it expresses lust, rage, terror, tenderness, etc.; this is
a routine task. No matter how carefully a speaker may choose his/her words
to express only affection, kind concern, or even just neutrality, if the
speaker's actual feeling for the listener is hostility -- and the speaker
is neither a Meryl-Streep-caliber actor nor a sociopath -- the positive
message will be cancelled by the nonverbal communication. (This is
something that physicians -- and college professors -- would strongly
prefer to have proved false; the famous quotation in the medical field is a
physician who said to Gregg Esterbrook, "I will not ALLOW that to be
true!") There is no word so "inherently offensive," in my opinion, that it
cannot be spoken in a way that conveys only a positive emotional message.

(4) Literature that linguists might not routinely turn to on this topic,
but that I would recommend, is found in aviation/space medicine -- where
it's crucial to be able to determine a pilot's emotional state from voice
data; and in law literature, where there are two related goals: <a> to be
able to judge a juror's emotional state from NVC even if words convey a
different message; and <b> to be able to appeal verdicts on the grounds
that inappropriate emotional messages have been conveyed by the NVC of
judges. Of primary importance to me is the demonstration that the *effects*
of emotional messages conveyed by voice alone can be proved even when the
listeners consistently claim that they were unaware of any such messages; I
find this more compelling than studies showing that college students cannot
reliably identify such messages and claiming that they therefore do not
receive them. I am, as always, willing to be proved wrong.

Some of the responses:

"To my mind, the hostile stress you're talking about reflects just one of
the many uses of EMPHATIC stress so there's no such animal as a 'hostile
stress marker' or some such measurable unit. Hostility has to be based on a
message that's already negative ... (T)he point is that you can put
emphatic stress pretty much in the same places as in any hostile message,
and get a totally different effect depending on the content." (From Marc

"I poked around in my textbooks and found 'FTA' (Face Threatening Act) as a
sociolinguistic unit and 'level' or 'degree' as phonological units which
are related to hostile stress. Brown and Levinson (1978,1987) define <it>
as a sociolinguistic unit which encompasses instances of hostile
exaggerated stress as well as many other linguistic devices which they
claim are intended to save or threaten 'face,' an individual's public
image. .... <See> especially on page 217 where there's a discussion of how
contrastive stress can be used to indicate criticism.
<See also> Hyman (1975)... <where> hostile stress is one instance of
emphatic or contrastive sentence stress." (From Sondra Ahlen; she lists
Brown, P. and S.C. Levinson 1978,1987, Politeness- Some Universals in
Language Usage, Cambridge U. Press -- Studies in International
Sociolinguistics, Vol. 4 ; and Hyman, L.M. 1975, Phonology: Theory and
Analysis, Holt NY.)

"I suspect that it is misleading to talk about 'the phonetic marker for
hostility' or even 'the primary phonetic marker for hostility...' at least
without defining 'hostility' in a very narrow and perhaps circular way. ...
This is a problem at the intersection of physiology, language, cognition
and culture, and it is not clear that we should expect to find a simple
one-to-one alignment among physiological states, subjective feelings, and
vocal expressions. ... There are some interesting recent review articles
about research on emotion and its expression by the social psychologist
Klaus Scherer. .. Scherer is going to be organizing a special session on
the expression of emotion, at the International Conference on Spoken
Language Processing meeting in Philadelphia next fall. I believe that this
session will include a presentation on the stsate of the art in automatic
recognition of emotion in speech.

I would be very surprised to find that what you have called 'phonetic
stress' is necessarily connected, or even strongly correlated with
'hostility.' Thus emphatic speech might well be taken to express joyous
exaltation, while extreme anger might quite stereotypically be expressed in
a trembling monotone. However, opinions (including my own) about how people
usually express themselves may be a more accurate reflection of social
stereotypes than of actual communicative behavior. This is just as true
when the opinions are collected from subjects in an experiment as when the
opinions are collected from linguists in their proverbial armchairs." (From
Mark Liberman)

 Several respondents recommended Scherer's work; several wrote to
express interest in the results of the discussion and to describe related
projects they are involved in. If any of the respondents quoted feel that
I have done them verbal violence rather than "summarizing" their comments,
I apologize; that was not my intention.

References I find useful:

Cosmides, Leda. 1983. "Invariances in the Acoustic Expression of Emotion
During Speech." Journal of Experimental Psychology 9:6;864-881, 1983.
Hollien, Harry. "Vocal Indicators of Psychological Stress." Annals of New
York Academy of Science 347;47-72, 1980.
Simonov, Pavel V. and Mikhail V. Frolov. "Analysis of the Human Voice as a
Method of Controlling Emotional State: Achievement and Goals." Aviation,
Space, and Environmental Medicine, January 1977, pp, 23-25.
Suggs, David, and Bruce Dennis Sales. "Using Comunication Cues to Evaluate
Prospective Jurors During the Voir Dire." Arizona Law Review 20;630-642,
A.F.G. "Notes: Judges' Nonverbal Behavior in Jury Trials a Threat to
Judician Impartiality." Virginia Law Review 61;1266-1298, 1975.
(Any of the studies by Peter Blanck et al. on the subject of judges'
"leaked" emotional messages.)

I very much appreciate your help. As I said, this is a serious problem in
medicine, and one I would like to be able to discuss with greater
confidence that what I am saying represents at least a partial consensus
within linguistics. If anyone has further comments on this topic, or
references to suggest, I would always be grateful to receive them and to
respond to the best of my ability.

Suzette Haden Elgin
PO Box 1137, Huntsville AR 72740-1137
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