Evil enregisterment

My last Silverstein post was such a hit, I thought I’d give you all a little more on indexicality and enregisterment.

In this case, That Mitchell and Webb Look gives us evil indexicality and enregisterment.

I put the video up top so you could enjoy it. Now comes the part where the researcher explains the joke so it isn’t funny any more.

In the course of the video, the murderer, Miss Brown, uses two distinct speech registers: first the innocent style, and then the “evil voice,” which is the subject of so much metadiscursive commentary from Poirot and the Captain. Since they label it a “voice,” that suggests that to these members of the community, the most salient difference between innocent and evil registers is phonological. I don’t know the technical terminology to describe the articulatory or acoustic difference (anyone?) but it’s so clear that you can easily follow her shifts back and forth, even with very short utterances like “What?!”

The differences between these two registers go beyond the phonological, though. I’ve transcribed a few of Miss Brown’s utterances for comparison. First, the innocent register:

Surely, Monsieur Poirot, you’re not accusing me of murder!
Oh heavens!
I really don’t know how this could have happened, Monsieur Poirot.
Monsieur Poirot, I implore you.

And then, the evil voice:

Yes, Freddie, I’m very much afraid that it is. Yes, I did kill Lord Carnington.
Damn you, Poirot!
I’m not sorry, damn you! I’d do it again!
Oh Freddie, it could have been so perfect if you weren’t such a fool.

The innocent register is an example of what John Conley and William O’Barr call “powerless speech.” “The ‘powerless’ style is characterized by the frequent use of such linguistic features as intensifiers, hedges, hesitation forms, and questioning intonations, whereas the ‘powerful’ style is marked by less frequent use of these features.” “Innocent” Miss Brown says, not just overtly powerless things like I implore you, but also intensifiers surely, really. Her interjection of choice is Oh heavens! while “evil” Miss Brown prefers Damn you!

Notably, Conley and O’Barr demonstrate that even if the propositional content of what you’re saying doesn’t change, use of the powerless style makes you seem innocent. So the innocent voice is an identifiable style just as much as the evil voice — all of Conley and O’Barr’s features combine to create an enregistered voice that indexes innocence, in the sense of “harmless” as well as the sense of “not guilty.”

Moving beyond lexical features, the innocent and evil registers also make different sorts of knowledge claims. “Innocent” Miss Brown talks about her lack of knowledge: Surely you’re not accusing me … I really don’t know, while “evil” Miss Brown makes definitive claims: I did kill Lord Carnington. Even the use of modalization is connected to lack of knowledge, in the innocent voice (I don’t know how this could have happened), and to certain knowledge of alternative outcomes, in the evil voice (it could have been so perfect).

But that’s not all — there’s more. Going along with the linguistic aspects of the evil voice — co-enregistered with it, we might say — are certain details of Miss Brown’s appearance: the cigarette holder, the hair, the cleavage. (Edit: “Sexy” being co-enregistered with “evil” is deeply problematic from a feminist perspective, but beyond the scope of this post.) In this case, fashion is being used as a non-linguistic semiotic, a way of communicating meaning without using words. By fashion being co-enregistered with “evil” linguistic features, we see that registers are not merely linguistic, but more broadly semiotic.

[h/t: Alex Marsters]

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