The Effects Of Aging On Speech: Profanity

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The following essay presented aims to discuss the hypothetical situation of an individual of younger age being casted to play an elderly woman. More specifically this paper aims to demonstrate the method in which said individual may use a variety of linguistic features in order to authentically portray an appropriate age identity for role they were casted to play. A variety of linguistic features will be discussed within this paper including discourse markers, vocabulary choice and vocal quality changes. Features that will be discussed within this paper include discourse markers, vocabulary choices ad vocal quality changes. All of the aforementioned features that can be used by an actor to accurately portray their characters age identity alongside add insight to the character’s background. Although, whilst this paper aims to discuss the forenamed linguistic features, due to the lack of research currently accessible within the sociolinguistics and linguistics fields discussing elderly speech conventions, the ability to present an all-inclusive paper on the essay topic is significantly limited, especially in relation to English.

Discourse Markers

Discourse markers are particles that are used to direct and/or redirect the flow of conversation without adding any significant paraphrasable meaning to the discourse (Nordquist, 2019). As Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan said discourse markers can more easily be describe as “traffic signals in terms of alerting us to what is about to come in an utterance and/or helping us see how the upcoming utterance is related to what has just been said” (Peters, 2017). With this understanding, it can be seen that discourse markers are important in building a foundation role of any character within a production. Whilst these particles play a variety of significant roles within the discourse – such as the following mentioned by Muller (2005): To initiate discourse, shift topics, preface a response or reaction, serve as a filler or delaying tactic, aid the speaker in holding the floor, effect an interaction or sharing between speaker and hearer, bracket the discourse either cataphoric ally or anaphorically, and mark either foregrounded or backgrounded information. Discourse particles that are used to serve as a filler and delaying tactic alongside particles that help allow the speaker to remain a hold of the floor theoretically appear in the speech of elderly individuals more frequently due to the reduction in cognitive function – such as the acquisition of anomic aphasia also known as dysnomia – and language skills. When discussing in relation to the English language particles such as “um”, “erm”, “well”, “so”, and “like” are generally used as fillers or when trying to recall a memory (Anto & Restika, 2018).

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Vocabulary Choices

It is said that “slang is commonly described as serving a variety of social and psychological functions” (Moore, 2004) Slang which can present itself as a single word, group of words, or a sentence. Slang is an informal variety of language usually outside of convention or standard usage typically used in colloquial speech and consists of both newly coined words and phrases, and of new or extended meaning attached to already established terms (Linhua, 2006). A group of researchers from New Paltz State University of New York from the department of psychology looked at generational differences in the use of emotional words. Elaborating on Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis that emotional words and their meaning would be dependent on culture and a group’s shared world views. Citera, Spence and Spero (2016) produced the hypothesis that slang words used across generations were linked to the particular pop culture of their teen years. Researchers found that individuals born within the Silent Generation (1925-1945) and the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) used unique terms such as “aces”, “bright-eyed and busy-tailed”, and “bummer”. Although, it was found that the Silent Generation used fewer slang words overall alongside profanity. In comparison, the Baby Boomers had the most mention of profanity and frequently used words such as: “what’s happening”, “hell”, “chicken”, and “wuss” (Citera, Spence & Spero, 2016).

The aforementioned information on vocabulary choice can be employed by actors through a variety of slang words correlating to individuals of specific generations. This is important in portraying an accurate age identity alongside share insight on the social, political and economic climate the character was born into. If the actor is portraying a character born into the Silent Generation less slang may be taken advantage of and instead the use of the standard vernacular may be applicable. It would also be plausible that if a Silent Generation character was being portrayed the use of profanity may decrease. In comparison, a character born into the Baby Boomers generation may be more accurately portrayed by the use of more generation-specific slang words and a higher frequency of profanity used within the script. Although it is known that generally as an individual age their use of profanity goes down it may be expected that Baby Boomers may still employ the use of some profanity even in old age.

Phonological Changes

Whilst the human body ages natural change takes place within the human articulatory system. Resulting in several deformations of the vocal tract and related organs taking place (Lindbblom,1971). Alongside this, other factors such as the size of the vocal cavity as teeth are lost to old age also play a significant role on the effects to acoustic properties and voice quality degradation of dental phonemes with aging (Das & Mandal & Mitra & Basu, 2012). Vowel pronunciation becomes an issue as an individual age due to the inability to produce the desired shape of the vocal cavity (Das & Mandal & Mitra & Basu, 2012). It has been found that tongue muscle strength also declines with aging inhibiting the production of several vowels depending on tongue hump position and height.

Vocal Quality Changes

It has been reported that theoretically, the abilities of an individual are the product of not only their genetic inheritance but also a combination of their life experiences (Salthouse, 1982). Equating to the underlying understanding that a specific group of individuals as they age will become significantly more different from one another. This theory is also applicable to the study of linguistics, the consequence being that the production of research papers into the features of elderly speech – such as tone and pitch – are increasingly laborious due to the difficulty in discovering what is within a normal range and not being affected by hereditary issues or previous consequential life choices like smoking. Depending on the backstory of the elderly individual being portrayed within this production, a variety of factors may affect how an actor my change their vocal quality to portray an accurate age identity. It can be concluded from a survey of the literature available within the field that aging is typically connected to the deterioration of speech quality parameters which affect vocal pitch, loudness, and quality, although such effects change dramatically and vary across the aging population (Verdonck-de Leeuw and Mahieu, 2004)

Data from a range of systematic studies on the voice quality of the elderly have reported that the development of a strained or tense and breathy voice may develop as individuals age. A study produced by Muller (1978) found that vocal hoarseness became apparent in 30% of women alongside 64% of men as they aged from a pool of 277 subjects aged 60 through to 90. When discussing the perception of vocal quality between genders Honjo and Isshiki (1980) found a reported increased roughness and hoarseness in the voices of elderly women suggesting this was due to increased mass in the vocal folds resulting from post-menopausal hormonal shifts. Meanwhile, in contrast it was found by Ryan and Burk (1974) that breathiness was said to typically characterized the elderly male voice. Whilst hoarseness is seen to be present in both genders it may be more applicable in apply this to a female character due to the idea perceived by the general public that elderly women have increased hoarseness in vocal quality. In comparison, if the actor is playing an elderly man within this production it may be better suggested to apply both roughnesses but also a significantly breathy tone to their voice throughout the performance.

A study produced by Verdonck-de and Mahieu (2004) also found two significant effects on vocal quality of aging men due to smoking habits. The first was the findings that the fundamental frequency in men who smoked was overall lower in comparison to those who did not participate in the activity throughout their lives. The second effect on vocal quality was that 90% of men who smoked has a creaky voice in comparison to 90% of non-smokers who did not produce this vocal quality change. This study by Verdonck-de and Mahieu (2004) also addressed two men who had stopped smoking and the findings were that whilst they had a significant lower frequency in comparison to non-smokers, they lacked the creaky voice associated with individuals that still smoke. This information may be important to not only in showing the age identity of the individual being portrayed but also in unlocking a deeper narrative through the use of background information such as harsher, deeper and more creaky voice in order to show that the character was a smoker. Something quite common and not considered bad for the time.

Structural changes to the vocal producing mechanisms such as laryngeal glands whose function is to lubricate the vocal cord mucosa may result in the dehydration of the epithelial lining, possibly being responsible for the excessive throat-clearing observed in many elderly speakers (Mueller, 1997). This may also be employed throughout the play to produce a more authentic and relatable age identity.

In closing a variety of linguistic features can be used in order to more accurately portray the age identity of an elderly character within a production, specifically if played by an actor of younger age. Discourse particles whose purpose is to serve as a filler and delaying tactic alongside particles that help allow the speaker to remain a hold of the floor may frequent the script more in relation to an elderly individual due to the decrease in cognitive function and development of issues such as anomic aphasia also known as dysnomia. More specifically depending on the generation the character was born into whether it be the Silent Generation or Baby Boomers the use of generation-specific vocabulary such as slang can help in delivering not only a more accurate age identity by the actor but give the audience insight on the social, political and economic climate the character was born into. Actors portraying character born into the Silent Generation may use a more standard vernacular as research has shown slang and profanity to be less frequented in their speech. Meanwhile, actors portraying characters born into the Baby Boomer generation may prefer more generational-specific slang and profanity as suggested by Citera, Spence and Spero (2016). Discussion relating to vocal quality changes in elderly individuals is found within research to be more gender specific. If an actor is attempting to play a female character researcher have suggested that a hoarse voice should be employed in comparison to if the actor was playing an elderly man within this production where it would be better suggested to employ both a roughness but also a significantly breathy tone to their voice throughout the performance. Life factors of the character may also have a significant effect on how the actor may use vocal techniques to portray their character. It was found by researchers that smokers not only had deeper voices than the average individual in the study but were associated with a croaky voice. Meanwhile, individuals who previously smoked but have since quit had a deep voice but did not develop the croaky voice associated with smokers.


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