Our faces provide the visual side of verbal communication
Written and spoken languages are amazingly dynamic and sophisticated inventions. Since people first started inscribing their thoughts nearly 5,000 years ago, humans have invented everything from phonetics, pictographs, and acronyms to silent letters and divergent spelling. This immense toolbox, coupled with over a million words in the English language alone, may not be enough for satisfying communication though. Some recent trends provide a few clues about what writing may be missing, with proper punctuation use being shunned in favor of turning those same marks into winking or smiling faces. It turns out that we’ve overlooked how much of our speech is in our face.
No sir, I don’t like it
Scientists from Ohio State University were looking into this concept, which they made sure to narrowly define. While humans can express a lot with our faces and body language, they were interested in when facial expressions crossed over from being general, emotional expressions to discrete pieces of grammar. They started with what they considered to be low-hanging fruit, the “not face.” Across languages and cultures, this expression is a combination of anger, disgust and contempt, with furrowed brows and pressed lips. Even people communicating in sign language would use the “not face,” sometimes in lieu of actually signing the word “not” to specify their disagreement with a statement.
Very precise lip pursing
That last point was important to the study, as that kind of substitution showed the specificity of the facial expression. Rather than a general emotional state, the flash of disagreement was discreet enough to function as a component of grammar, carrying as much weight in a sentence as a question mark versus a period. To reinforce this notion, people were measured as even making the face with the same rhythms as a spoken word. On average, humans speak around three to eight syllables per second, just the same as the amount of time most people allot to a firm “not face” in a conversation.
With this starting point, the researchers are going to try to define other pieces of facial punctuation. They assume that there are more, but they might not be as obvious as the “not face,” so they’re going to enlist computers to start combing across YouTube for patterns in spoken and emoted speech. The goal is then to better understand how language evolved in the first place, and how our visually-oriented brains have worked with verbal abstractions like words and grammar. Based on the above, it appears that we prefer to listen with our ears and our eyes.
Source: What one snarky facial expression could teach us about the evolution of language by Rachel Feltman, Speaking of Science