A correspondent writes with an enquiry that needs to be quoted in full:
'This morning I tried simultaneously to brush my teeth and talk. I tried saying, 'I don’t know,' and the listener managed to understand my muffled 'words'. Actually, they could be thought less of words and more as pulsated approximations of words, three throbs with the first one neutral, the second a bit higher, and the third ending on a lilt. Since the words 'I don’t know' are used so often in English, it wasn’t difficult for my listener to guess what I meant. And that got me thinking, how much does this sort of 'speech'—hummed, or pulsated approximations of real words— factor into the English language, as well as others? I imagine that for any language, the most common words and phrases would, even if intonated in such a 'muddy' manner, still be understood because of their familiarity and frequency of use. Is this sort of speech ever used for histrionic or comic effect? Or have any authors ever exploited it for inventive literary purposes?'
This is an area which, in phonetics, would fall under the heading of paralinguistics - though I have to say mouth-filled speech isn't one of the categories recognized when Quirk and I first studied vocal effects back in the 60s. It just didn't turn up in the corpus - unsurprising, really, as 'Don't talk with your mouth full' is a (?universal) pragmatic prohibition that we learn from our parents at around age 3, and the recordings of relatively formal situations we were using then simply didn't present the relevant situations. The surreptitious recording of bathroom or dining-room speech wasn't a top priority at the time.
It's more than just politeness that's at stake. There is a risk of choking. And unintelligibility. But etiquette is a dominant factor. Some people, if asked a question at exactly the point where they have taken a mouthful on board, simply refuse to speak until they have swallowed, which can produce an awkward silence in the conversation (though the mouth-filled one will usually use facial expression or hand gesture to explain what's happening). Listeners understand the problem if they've been brought up in that way. (I muse over my parenthesis above. Is it etiquette in all languages? It is in all the language situations I've experienced.)
Despite the lack of examples in corpora, mouth-filled speech is really rather common. I suspect most people do it, from time to time, in informal eating situations, when they feel the urgent need to make a point. And eating is only one of the relevant situations. Other examples, in addition to speaking while brushing the teeth, are
- speaking while holding a writing implement in the mouth (while the hands are otherwise engaged), as I've often seen in business meetings
- speaking (or trying to) when the dentist, just having filled your mouth with implements, asks you if you had a nice holiday
- and relatedly, speaking after having had your gums filled with anaesthetic
- speaking with pins in the mouth, while sewing
- speaking with a pipe or cigarette in the mouth
- speaking with a hand or finger in the mouth, sucking it better after a hurt
- speaking with ill-fitting false teeth
- little (and sometimes not-so-little) children, sometimes try to speak while keeping a dummy (pacifier) in the mouth
- speaking with a decorative item in the mouth, such as a pierced tongue
- for boxers, speaking with a gum-shield
- in old-style elocution, speaking with a pebble in the mouth to improve one's pronunciation - a technique supposedly used by Demosthenes to overcome a stammer
- more dramatically, movies regularly show us someone trying to speak with a gag in the mouth
- or talking while someone else is in their mouth, as with a passionate kissing scene.
These situations are common enough to have made me role-play mouth-filled speech in listening comprehension exercises, when I used to do some EFL teaching in summer schools. Solo, I hasten to add, in view of the last example.
Linguists are well aware of the importance of avoiding situations where something interferes with natural speech production. Field linguists watch out for any physical limitations in their informants - it would be unwise, for example, to rely greatly on the phonology produced by an aged speaker who had lost all his teeth. And some of the semiotic transcriptions of body behaviour from the 1960s include symbols for such effects as 'speaking through clenched teeth', 'speaking while licking one's lips', and 'speaking with mouth pursed'. However, these are just general markers. I don't know of any phonetic descriptions at the level of the segment.
Do authors do it? I haven't come across any. They seem to leave the effect to the reader's imagination. Here's J. M. Barrie in A Widow in Thrums (Chapter 3):
' "Ye daur to speak aboot openin' the door, an' you sic a mess!" cried Jess, with pins in her mouth.'
The character has that accent throughout; no special effort is made to represent the effect of the pin-holding. Here's George Eliot, in Scenes of Clerical Life (Chapter 1):
' "So," said Mr. Pilgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, "you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday." '
That sentence would certainly have sounded differently. And even Charles Dickens, so good at depicting the idiosyncrasies in an individual's speech, leaves this effect to the reader, as in Nicholas Nickleby (Chapter 5):
' "This is the way we inculcate strength of mind, Mr Nickleby," said the schoolmaster, turning to Nicholas, and speaking with his mouth very full of beef and toast.'
A rare example of an author trying to represent the segmental phonetics of mouth-filled speech is Anna Pickard in The Guardian (27 April 2006) which begins:
' "Fankky, i's ow-wajus. I fine i' affo-uuti owajus. Va figiss ... hangom, suwee, nee to swa-oh." Frankly, it's outrageous...'
And she goes on:
'And what, I ask, is so wrong with talking with your mouth full? In an age where multitasking is a marketable skill, surely the ability to eat and keep up your end of the conversation at the same time should be positively commended. '
She specifies three benefits:
There simply isn't time in the day to set aside a separate amount for eating and for talking. By combining the two activities, an incredible amount of time can be saved. Also, none of your companions will ever need to ask what you had for lunch again. They will know, because they can see.
The process of eating while talking can do wonders for the figure. Anatomically speaking, the act of sucking in air for the talking while holding food in the oratory position should, in theory, bring more air into the food, thus inflating it, and making you feel more full (if slightly gassy). While this hasn't been scientifically proven as far as I know, speaking as a university graduate, it certainly sounds like a convincing theory. My degree is in dramaturgy.
By the simple act of talking while eating, you can easily ensure that you will be memorable to everyone you meet. While what you were saying might have been otherwise forgettable, no one will ever forget you if you gave them a good eyeful of bolognese while you were saying it.'
It's nice to have the opportunity of resurrecting this piece from the journalistic past.
If readers of this post have come across any other examples of mouth-filled speech, especially in literature and in languages other than English, I'd love to know of them, as I'm sure would my correspondent.