Phonetic Convergence

People alter their speech depending on who they are speaking to and characters should do the same.

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The accent, tone, and rhythm of a person’s speech, and therefore of a character, are affected by countless factors. These can include where they live, their upbringing and education, their friends and role models, their social and professional status, and any personal speech impediments such as lisps and stutters. But after all of that, writers must also take into account how that character may change their delivery of speech, their use or disuse of slang and abbreviations, their intonation, rhythm, and pronunciation, depending on who they are speaking to, and how they feel about other people. Most of these changes in speech, if not all of them, happen automatically and without a character realising they are doing it.

Think about the last time you met up with a close friend, how you spoke to them, and how you felt when you were speaking to them. Now image you’re talking to the Queen. Would your posture change; your heart-rate quicken? Would your words speed up or slow down? Would you alter your pronunciation and clarity of words? Now imaging you are talking to your partner or spouse and ask yourself the same questions. What about your employer?

There are so many occasions that cause us to divert away from our usual speech, including levels of formality and social situations and expectations. How well we know the person we are speaking to, what we know about them and what we believe they know about us, and of course how we want them to perceive us, are all factors that alter our speech. Our body language, breathing and heart-rate also play a huge part in conveying how we feel, in our mannerisms and in how we deliver our words.

When writing the speech of a character (assuming they are human) we need to write speech that adjusts in the same way as ours. The following are some of the main things to consider when your character engages in conversation with another character.

Do they know them well and are on good terms?

If they have spent a lot of time with and are close to the character they’re speaking to, be it a relative of similar age (such as a sibling or cousin), or a close friend, they will be relaxed and laid back. This results in lazy, easy speech, which might be abbreviated in a way they both understand. Slang terms, inside jokes, and nicknames are likely to be used, and the pacing and delivery of words by each character will be very similar due to phonetic convergence—the way that the speech of two people begins to sound very similar due to the familiarity of the speakers.

Eye-contact will likely be reduced as the characters will feel comfortable enough around each other to get on with other tasks while talking, and body language will be relaxed and comfortable. These characters know each other well enough to not feel the need to fill silences and, with strong trust and established friendship boundaries already in place, they are comfortable to talk openly about all sorts of subjects and personal dilemmas without much change in emotion of their laid-back style of speech.

Do they know them well; is there friction?

This is usually a result of a dynamic between relatives, often when one is older than the other. Conversations may consist of very similar speech patterns, accent, use of slang and tone, since the characters have likely spent time in the same location and have a similar upbringing and life experience. However, speech will be challenging and somewhat argumentative, with each character antagonising the other, showing off or trying to out-do them in some way. Tones could be deepened to show dominance, and speech is clipped and to the point, sometimes even cutting off one another before they are able to finish, to show disrespect.

Do they want the character to be their friend?

If they like the person they’re talking to and would like to make sure they are liked in return, in terms of friendship and not attraction, characters will mimic all sorts of aspects of the other character. This mimicking includes physically through appearance and body language, consciously with likes and dislikes, even fashion and lifestyle choices, but the mimicking also spreads, usually subconsciously, to speech. This could result in phonetic convergence with the adoption of certain tones and speech patterns, as well as mannerisms in terms of delivery of speech, with accents and speech impediments possibly also being mimicked. When talking to a character who they want to become good friends with, your character will be extremely positive and agreeable.

Are they physically attracted to the character?

The stereotypical physical effects of attraction are butterflies in the stomach and pupils growing larger, as well as altered body language, but there are also changes that occur in voice when someone is speaking to someone they’re attracted to. Voices become clearer and more attractive, with lower-pitched voices being attracted to others with higher-pitched voices, and vice versa, and each one of us subconsciously knows this. These variations in pitch are often amplified subconsciously to increase attractiveness.

Phonetic convergence will often take place in an effort to be similar to someone they find attractive to maximise the chances of that character finding them attractive in return. If the ex-partner of the character is known, the copying of their particular speech may occur.

There is also the chance that the opposite might happen and that a character could even exaggerate their differences in speech in an effort to be seen as more attractive to a potential mate, such as the overemphasis of an existing accent that the other character doesn’t possess themselves but are known to find attractive.

Are they in awe of the character?

Nerves will play a big part in the speech of a character who is speaking to a character they are in awe of and—with the faster heartbeat and sweaty palms associated with being nervous—the character will likely stutter, or ramble off on a tangent, or fall utterly speechless and forget what they were going to say. The altering of their speech will depend on what they presume of the character they are in awe of and also on how they want to be perceived by them, which could cause the intentional dropping of correct pronunciation and the inclusion of slang, or they might transform their voice into a proper English accent if this is what they deem will be noticed and approved by the character they are speaking to, or anything in between. Phonetic convergence can happen in a very short space of time under these circumstances, with the character very quickly picking up on and imitating the speech patterns and intonation of the character that they are in awe of.

Do they greatly dislike the character?

In this instance phonic divergence will usually take places, which is when speech automatically changes to differ from who we are speaking to because we do not want to sound like them. A character speaking to someone they greatly dislike will deliver their words with clarity and usually hold back from using any slang terms that could be considered friendly, unless of course they are hiding their dislike of the character.

 

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what writers need to consider when creating plausible and realistic speech between their human characters, as well as many other factors such as how the characters are feeling at the time due to what is happening in the plot, which will also have a huge impact of the way characters speak. What is important to remember, though, is that characters may begin to sound similar at times, and this can be intentionally exploited to show underlying subtext.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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