Where Do Interjections Come From? A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Shaw's Pygmalion

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, Volume 34, Number 5, p.497-514 (2005)




conceptual and medial orality, dramatic performance, emotional expression, interjections, spontaneity


Starting from our recent findings regarding emotional and initializing functions of interjections in TV and radio interviews (Kowal & O'Connell, 2004b; O'Connell & Kowal, in press; O'Connell, Kowal, & Ageneau, 2005), we used the book and script of Shaw (1916/1969) and the audiotape of the motion picture (Pascal, Asquith, & Howard, 1938) Pygmalion to investigate how actors use interjections to express emotions. The following hypotheses were tested: (1) The actors use the written cues selectively in their oral performance by substituting, adding, and deleting interjections; (2) primary interjections added by the actors are less conventional than those in the written text; (3) durations and number of syllables of Eliza Doolittle's spoken renditions of her signature interjection ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo do not correlate with the length in letters and syllables of the written versions; and (4) there is no evidence for Ameka's (1992b, 1994) characterization of interjections as temporally isolated, i.e., preceded and followed by silent pauses, in consequence of their syntactic isolation. Our findings confirmed all the hypotheses except for one unexpectedly significant correlation between number of syllables in Eliza Doolittle's signature interjection in the written version and duration in seconds of the spoken version thereof. The common thread throughout these data is the actor's need to personalize emotions in a dramatic performance—by means of interjections other than those provided in the written text. In this process of personalization, the emotional and initializing functions of interjections are confirmed.