Tuesday 5 July 2011

On mouth-filled speech

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:

'Time management
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.

Portion control 
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.


Anonymous said...

Working in an office filled with Koreans in Seoul, I often hear "mouth-filled" speech around the office. Eating and toothbrushing seem to be the most common times, but I seem to remember it happening at others. My own Korean has progressed to the point that I often have some small idea of what is going one when they're speaking clearly, but "mouth-filled" speech is completely beyond me. I can lip read Korean better than I can understand "mouth-filled" speech. I absolutely marvel at their ability to understand and respond appropriately, which they always seem to do. I imagine that in addition to the paralinguistic features, the influence of vowels is quite important, as consonants always seem to pretty well disappear.

Q. Pheevr said...

Well, there's this bit from Douglas Adams's Mostly Harmless:

They munched for a bit.

'It's quite good in fact,' said Ford. 'What's the meat in it?'

'Perfectly Normal Beast.'

'Not come across that one. So, the question is,' Ford continued, 'who is the bird really doing it for? What's the real game here?'

'Mmm,' ate Arthur.

Robert said...

There's a particularly useful example of this in the fourth Harry Potter novel (I think), where a the speech of a character with a mouthful of food is represented phonetically. This gives readers an indication of how the name 'Hermione' is meant to be pronounced ("er-my-oh-nee"), as apparently JK Rowling received many requests for clarification on the matter...

Elizabeth Amor said...

There are a few examples in the Harry Potter series of books, all of them involving Ron Weasley. My favourite is from Order of the Phoenix, where we have Ron asking, 'Ow kunnit nofe skusin danger ifzat?' through a mouthful of roast potatoes. (How can it know the school's in danger if it's a hat?)

Jude Gibbons said...

In the example sent in by your correspondent it seems the familiarity of the sentence "I don't know" was key in the listener being able to understand it. How would this apply in languages that rely on tones (e.g. Cantonese): does this make them more or less intelligible when the speaker has their mouth full? Would that also apply to Korean as the previous commenter mentioned?

Mouth-filled speech is also affected by what is in your mouth: with food in your mouth you will probably try to keep your tongue still, whereas if you are holding a pen between your lips your tongue is more free to move but the lips less so.

I found it interesting on reading your example of Anna Pickard's that I couldn't understand what it said until I replicated it myself out loud. I've had a similar experience trying to read a word in handwriting which only became clear when I copied it out.

Not really mouth-filled speech, but other examples of "hummed, or pulsated approximations of real words" are the noises made by the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons, or the Clangers' speech (bringing to mind the story about how the scripts were written in English before being recorded as Clanger-speak, and how Oliver Postgate got told off by the BBC for using the word 'bloody' even though it wouldn't be distinguishable as such in the final recording).

DC said...

Interesting... As for the question of tone, I'd've thought that this wouldn't be affected. Tone (and intonation) is primarily a function of vocal cord vibration, and in much the same way as the stress pattern is retained I'd expect pitch movement to be retained too. Other prosodic features would vary, though. Speech rate, in particular would likely be slower. And other paralinguistic features would probably be absent.

A Mitton said...

I've been reading Harry Potter and have come across mouth-filled speech often (usually in Ron). However, she also makes a point to phonetically spell out other English dialects, or accents. Hagrid, for example, has an accent throughout all seven books, and in the fourth the characters from foreign schools also have accents written phonetically. Perhaps writers who spend the time to phonetically spell out accents for their readers are also more inclined to phonetically spell mouth-filled speech? Just a thought.

QoB said...

Terry Pratchett's Discworld gargoyles also have permanently mouth-filled speech (as their mouths are drainpipes...). I can't seem to find an accurate transcription of how Pratchett writes them online though.
(He also tends to write accents phonetically).

Sabi said...

i witnessed an interview once, where a surgeon had his breathing-protection on. one couldn't understand a word and most of the journalists believed the patient (a german tv-star)has passed away. luckily she didn't...

=Tamar said...

In Sourcery, p.21 UK paperback, Pratchett gives a gargoyle's speech as: 'A Ourcerer is umming! Eee orr ife!' (A Sourcerer is coming! Flee for your life!')

Stan said...

Daniel Everett, in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, writes that "hum speech" is one of five communication channels in the Pirah√£ language. It's often used by mothers talking to their children, and it's also used for privacy (like our whispering) and "to talk when one's mouth is full".

John Cowan said...

Grass's Local Anaesthetic has a good deal of mouth-filled speech, as the protagonist is getting extensive dental work throughout the book.

And here's a bit from Dorothy L. Sayers's story "In The Teeth Of The Evidence:

"Ah—ow—oo—oo—uh—ihi—ih?" inquired Wimsey naturally enough.

"How do I come into it?" said Mr. Lamplough [Wimsey's dentist], who from long experience was expert in the interpretation of mumblings.

DC said...

Wonderful example! Thanks.

DC said...

An d I've just come across this one, in 'The House at Pooh Corner' by A A Milne:

But Tigger said nothing because his
mouth was full of haycorns....
After a long munching noise he said:
"Ee-ers o i a-ors."
And when Pooh and Piglet said "What?" he said "Skoos ee," and went outside for a moment.
When he came back he said firmly:
"Tiggers don't like haycorns."

Svenja said...

Another example, though not mouth-filled (from Alan Bradley's "A red herring without mustard", p. 210):

I made the motion of pulling a zipper across my lips.
"Oon ewdge?"
"Sorry, dear. I don't know what you're saying."
I unfastened the zipper.
"Who else?..."

DC said...


Hyeladzira Ali Balami said...

"Highly enlightening," with nothing @ all in my mouth, save my teeth & tongue! -- Hyeladzira Ali Balami,Nigeria

Stan said...

I just came across an example in Hilary Mantel's 2005 novel Beyond Black:

'Mandy—' Alison began.
Mandy waved a hand. 'Nugh about it,' she said, her mouth full of muesli. 'Id nig. Nobbel self.'
'But I do blame myself,' Al insisted.

DC said...

Lovely example. Thanks.

Stan said...

An extended example from Jeff Lindsay's crime novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter:

Vince took a big bite of cinnamon roll. His lips gleamed with frosting as he slowly chewed. 'Mmmpp,' he said, and swallowed. 'Are we feeling left out?'
'If we means Deborah, yes we are,' I said. 'I told her I'd take a look at the file for her.'
'Wulf,' he said, mouth full of pastry, 'merf pluddy uh bud is nime.'
'Forgive me, master,' I said. 'Your language is strange to me.'
He chewed and swallowed. 'I said, at least there's plenty of blood this time. But you're still a wallflower. Bradley got the call for this one.'
'Can I see the file?'
He took a bite. 'Ee waf awife—'
'Very true, I'm sure. And in English?'
Vince swallowed. 'I said, he was still alive when his leg came off.'
'Human beings are so resilient, aren't they?'
Vince stuck the whole pastry in his mouth and picked up the file, holding it out to me and taking a large bite of the roll at the same time. I grabbed the folder.
'I've got to go,' I said. 'Before you try to talk again.'

DC said...

Beautiful example. Thank you!

Stan said...

This one is a little different. The narrator, Harrison, is an 11-year-old boy who has emigrated from Ghana to England. His older sister Lydia's friend, Miquita, is teaching him how to kiss, under Lydia's supervision. He doesn't like Miquita, but he wants to be ready for when his girlfriend wants a kiss:

Then she kissed me right on the lips. It was quite soft. It was even not too bad until I felt her tongue go in.
Me: 'Nnngggtngg, yudiingsaanythnnngabouutnng!'
Miquita stopped. I got my breath back.
Miquita: 'What was that?'
Me: 'You didn't say anything about tongues!'
Miquita: 'But everyone likes the tongue. You gotta learn the best way or there's no point. Just go with it.'
Her lips kept sucking, her breath kept blowing hot up my nose. I couldn't even stop it. I don't even like cherry. My belly felt sick like the sea.
Me: 'Stoppih! Lyda, helllpe! Gehhheroff!'
Lydia: 'He's had enough. He keeps holding his breath.'

DC said...

Another good one. Many thanks. And, for information: soutce is Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English.

Stan said...

Oh yes, I don't know how I forgot to name the book! I just finished reading it.

DC said...

Amazing how much interest this topic has attracted. I've used it as an interlude in my Sounds Appealing, and I get comments about it more than about anything else!

Stan said...

That's interesting. I suppose it's a kind of linguistic game or challenge for writers. Ever since I became aware of it as a phenomenon or category (thanks to this post), I've been intrigued by the different forms it can take: the many things that can be in a speaker's mouth, and the various ways authors convey the muddled words.
I look forward to reading Sounds Appealing sometime.

Stan said...

The latest example I saw appears in the graphic novel Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples. Delicate readers should look away now. A few pages into volume 1, Alana has just given birth, and her partner, Marko, is biting the umbilical cord (the couple are on the run and cannot avail of proper facilities). The dialogue is in speech bubbles, rendered below in quotation marks:

Alana: 'Marko! What the hell are you doing?!'
Marko: 'Cuhhing thu mbilical?'
Alana: 'You have a sword! You are wearing a sword!'
Marko: [lifting his head for a moment] 'I made a vow, Alana. I'm a father now, not a soldier, and that blade is never again leaving its scabbard. [biting again] Rnnf. Wasn't expecting... this much gristle.'

Stan said...

Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both has a possible example of this. George visits her mother in hospital, and her mother's speech is impaired. There's no mention of tubes in her mouth, but it seems possible given the context; in any case the result is close enough to offer here:

George had seen her contorted in the hospital bed. Her skin had changed colour and was covered in weals. She could hardly speak. What she did say, in the last part of whatever was happening to her and before they put George outside the door to wait in the corridor, was that she was a book, I'm an open book, she said. Though it was also equally possible that what she'd said was that she was an unopen book.
I a a u opn ook.

DC said...

Another nice example. Thank you.

Stan said...

Here's a brief example from White Teeth by Zadie Smith:

'Joyce, Marcus,' appealed Joshua, looking for an external judgement. 'Tell him.'
Marcus popped a great wedge of cheese in his mouth and shrugged his shoulders. 'I'm afwaid Miyat's oar mu'rer's jurishdicshun.'

['Miyat' is Millat, another character.]

DC said...

Lovely. Thank you again.