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Cultural Cachinnation as a Paralinguistic Phenomenon

Laughter is a cultural phenomenon. A Japanese, for instance, has a different laugh from an American. Moreover, laughter differs by age and sex in all cultures. When high-pitched, the kind of laughter that is designated by the intransitive verb cachinnate ‘to laugh loudly or immoderately; guffaw’ is a particular feature of the contemporary behavior of middle-aged and older American women and is typically paralinguistic (during and after speech). Besides being high-pitched, this species of laughter is usually drawn out and aesthetically unappealing. It is not to be heard from American males (partly because of the structural differences between the larynxes of men and women) and is largely absent as a concomitant of the speech behavior of either sex in other cultures.

Given the marked presence of apotropaic features in the speech of females (noted in earlier posts), it is tempting to seek an explanation of this kind of laughter in the ever-present possibility that women’s behavior, more than that of men, includes apotropaism as an unconscious goal at the very least. However, precisely how cachinnation achieves that goal is unclear. By a woman speaker’s resort to it, perhaps high-pitched laughter is a way of signaling––as pre-, inter-, or postlude––that whatever is said need not be taken at full value. Cachinnation would thereby be of a piece with other behavioral characteristics that distinguish men from women in American culture.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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