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English

Listening to how we speak

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Analysing spoken language: example

Here is another comedy clip. As you watch, listen to the characters' words, expressions, accent, and intonation (how their voice rises and falls).

The Catherine Tate Show

Analysis of the way the two characters talk:

The teacher: The teacher speaks softly and pronounces her words clearly. This may suggest a formal education and a background that values 'standard' modes of speaking. Her accent, particularly her pronunciation of 'r' in words (eg learn) shows she is from the West of England. This is characteristic of many rural and West Country English areas which is why Lauren asks if she is a farmer.

The teacher's tone is soft, showing that she is in a nurturing or caring role, but her speech is full of commands, showing that the relationship is unequal (or 'asymmetric'). The teacher is in a position of authority. She therefore gets angry when that authority is challenged. As the sketch goes on, however, the teacher loses her soft tone and she ends up acting like Lauren.

Lauren: The first thing we notice about Lauren is her confrontational manner. This is mirrored in her idiolect - she does not change the words or expressions she uses to fit the situation. She also picks up on the teacher's different accent. When she does she draws wrong conclusions. First she thinks the teacher must be from the north, then that she must be a farmer.

We laugh at the way Lauren speaks and the mistakes she makes. Lauren does not speak Standard English. We can hear this, for example, in the way 'th' is pronounced 'f' (as in 'norf'), and the way she repeats question tags such as 'is it'.

Conclusions: Lauren is very judgemental about the teacher. She draws conclusions based on how the teacher speaks. The audience, however, also draws conclusions about Lauren. We laugh because Lauren makes comments that seem inappropriate. While we may draw conclusions from the way people speak, we are usually aware that it is not polite to say: "you speak funny, is it!" What is funny is Lauren's lack of self-awareness. She has not stopped to think that the teacher might think Lauren herself sounds 'funny'. We might also be laughing because we recognise the way she speaks and acts in our friends and, perhaps, ourselves.

Lauren is a very successful comic creation. One reason people like her might be because we enjoy seeing the way spoken language causes problems. Different people, with different ways of speaking, cannot understand each other. It forces them apart and into confrontational situations. Recognising that, perhaps, brings us all closer together.

Key terms:

Asymmetrical relationship - a relationship where one person is in a more powerful social or professional position than the other (as opposed to a symmetrical relationship).

Rhetorical question - a question that works more like a statement: it does not require a genuine answer. It can be used as a persuasive device but also to create distance between two arguing parties.

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