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Linguistically musical? You're probably nicer, too.*

January 19, 2010 | 10:14 pm

Ever wonder what's up with your friend who sounds like Betty Boop? Perplexed by how your teenager, like, ends every sentence as if it were a question? Wondering how that TV commentator who pauses at odd places in his sentences keeps his job?

You're wondering about prosody -- the musical dimension of language. Prosody is the timing, inflection and emphasis a person puts on her words and sentences. It's the non-word part of speech that adds shades of meaning, conveys a speaker's intent and expresses her state of mind. Like trills, tempo and pauses in music, prosody can reflect a speaker's emotions. And it can induce emotions in the listener too.

Not surprisingly, some of us are better than others at enriching our language with prosody. And some of us are better than others at picking up on other people's prosody. A study published Tuesday in the journal PLoS One uncovers a few interesting connections:

First, that the many regions of the brain that are involved in inflecting one's language with prosody are largely the same as those we use to listen to the subtle signals in the speech of others. Second, that people whose prosody makes them very expressive also tend to be good at picking up on others' prosody. And third, that people with a talent for prosody tend to be more empathic: They're keener listeners and more likely to mirror the emotion conveyed by the speaker.

So now you can figure out what part of your friend Betty Boop's brain is in overdrive, or why that guy in your office with the "flat affect" voice probably won't be a great confidante. The study may tell you what part of your teenager's brain is firing when she opens her mouth to talk. But it's no assurance you'll understand her.

--Melissa Healy

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled "prosody" as "prosity." Thanks to those who pointed out the error.

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