drunken masters of lingua franca

Soundjenluc We're having a bit of a thematic installment of Friday Fodder this week. See, I regrettably missed this year's Acoustical Society of America meeting in Seattle, but I still managed to rifle through their impressive collection of lay language papers covering talks presented at the meeting. I already covered the watershed work on muting the noise of flushing low-flow toilets a couple of weeks ago. But there were also tons of papers relating to speech: researchers at looking at the voice physiology of transgender people; how men and women imitate each other and what this might tell us how gender, emotion and just plain old acoustics impact those imitations; and how to identify the sexual orientation of speakers based on just their voices.

There was even a paper on "understanding casual speech," which I guess must be, like, hard and stuff for some folks. And now I'm happy to report that Abby Kaplan, who works in the linguistics department at the University of Utah, had some interesting things to say about drunken speech patterns — namely, whether it's harder to pronounce certain sounds or words when intoxicated.

This might strike many readers as "Duh!" science, but as Kaplan discovered, actually demonstrating in a rigorous fashion what we all instinctively feel to be true — based on personal experience — isn't quite as simple as it seems. (Nor is she the first to be intrigued by this question. Via Language Log, I learned that there is a 1902 treatise by a guy named Edward Wheeler Scripture, The Elements of Experimental Phonetics, that toys with the notion of studying the phonetics of drunken and other unusual speech patterns through recordings.)

Let's start with the assumption that certain sounds and words are more difficult to pronounce than others (an effect that is exacerbated if, like me, your vocabulary was acquired through extensive reading — I habitually put my emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle). "Intuitively, it seems obvious that some sounds are harder to pronounce than others," Kaplan writes. She points to the "th" sound, as in "think" as being rather rare in the world's languages, and a stumbling block for many ESL students.

Linguistic theory holds — so far — that some phonetic speech patterns involve substituting easier sounds for harder ones. The most common example is how [p] is ponounced [b] in some languages (Korean, Malaysian) when it occurs between two vowels, while in other languages [b] is pronounced [v] when between two vowels. But how do we know if these quirks occur because one sound really is easier than another? Well, you can always conduct a controlled experiment with participants reading a list of words first while sober, and then while intoxicated, since the latter sate impairs verbal (and other) functions.

And here is where the fun begins, because in order to test this hypothesis, Kaplan had to get her study participants quite drunk. I'm guessing she had quite a few volunteers. They were plied with equal parts vodka and orange juice until they reached a blood alcohol content level of between .10 and .12, just above the legal driving limit in the US of .08) — until, one assumes, they started to sound like the title character played by Dudley Moore in the original Arthur from the 1970s:

Kaplan's findings: (a) drunken speech is indeed different from sober speech (the "Duh" aspect); and (b) "the overall range of sounds that people pronounce is smaller in drunken speech than in sober speech," which is consistent with Kaplan's original thesis, with one caveat: the participants didn't always choose the easier sounds when they were drunk. Sometimes they pronounced more of their [p]'s like [b]'s when drunk, but then, they also pronounced more of their [b]'s like [p]'s. So you can't really say, based on her study, that one sound is easier than the other. And this, says Kaplan, has some interesting implications for the prior assumptions made by linguists:

"If drunken speech really does involve saying `easier' sounds, then these results are a challenge for what linguists have traditionally believed about the sound patterns described above.  These results suggest that neither [p] nor [b] is easier to pronounce between vowels, but rather that some sound intermediate between the two is easier than both.  If it's not true that [b] is easier to say between vowels than [p], then there must be some other reason languages replace [p] with [b] in this context…. One important goal for future research is to try other methods of studying 'easy' and 'hard' sounds, and see whether the results of those methods are consistent with the results of this experiment."

Arthur's slurred speech is made more difficult to understand, one presumes, by his pronounced British accent. Over at The Last Word on Nothing, Sally Adee has an amusing post on why a British accent makes phrases like "chuffed" and "can't be arsed" — even random dialogue from Jersey Shore — sound posh, whereas when Adee herself attempts those phrases, her native-German-laced-with-Long-Island-and-a-bit-of-Baltimore accent simply isn't up to the "can't be arsed" challenge: "When a Brit delivers the phrase, those three little words are transformed into gleaming pearls of wit. But in my mouth, that 'r' is like hitting a ten-foot pothole in a clown car.”

I think we should all be able to say "chuffed" and other amusing Britishisms if we feel so inclined, even if it makes our friends roll their eyes — possibly even with a fake British accent. C'mon, it could be funny, as well as pretentious. Jen-Luc Piquant deliberately puts on airs for her fellow avatars in Cyberspace; she thinks it makes her sound more sophisticated to affect zee 'eavy Gallic accent, n'est-ce pas? I don't have the heart to tell her that it just makes her seem like a prat. Who am I to judge?

Phillips_dialect_map Heck, sometimes I find myself imitating (badly) people's regional accents in casual conversation in spite of myself. I recall as a teenager, during church fellowship hour, finding myself in conversation with a well-spoken, articulate high school senior girl, who was making a valiant effort to reach out to the shy, socially awkward sophomore (i.e., me — people don't believe me today, but I was painfully shy through much of college), fidgeting before her and struggling to maintain eye contact. I did my best to match her liveliness, her vocal inflections — except then she got a strange look on her face and abruptly walked off. She thought I was mocking her (I wasn't). It was one of many failed attempts to fit in with my church's social structure.

The tendency of people to imitate tone of voice, gestures, and other elements of conversational style is something that is well-documented by linguistic studies, according to Sara Phillips, a linguist at Ohio State University. Phillips and her collaborators decided to explore one commonly imitated factor in particular: regional dialects, most notably, how certain vowels are pronounced. Northerners, for instance, might flatten out the vowel sound in "block" such that it seems closer to "black," and make a subtle distinction in vowel sound when they say "caught" or "cot," compared to Midland speakers. "We wanted to see if speakers imitate only idiosynchratic properties of the talker's voice, or if they imitate properties of the talker's dialect, too," writes Phillips.

So they had participants repeat words and phrases of certain regional dialect talkers, recording the utterances of both. These were designated A, B and X, in which B was the speaker's normal pronunciation, A was the speaker prnouncing the same word in imitation of a dialect speaker, and X was the original dialect speaker's pronunciation. Then they played the recordings back for a control group of listeners who were asked to determine whether A or B sounded more like X. (There are sound files so you can hear for yourself.) Anyone who chose A seemed to be picking up on the imitated accent of the dialect. Or were they? Phillips et al. coupled their study with an acoustic analysis, and came to a somewhat different conclusion:

"It appears that speakers were imitating aspects of pronunciation that are not known to mark dialect, such as the duration of the vowel or final consonant of the word. In our experimental materials, the Northern talkers produced longer vowels and consonants than the Midland talkers.  This difference may have resulted in the appearance of dialect imitation, even though participants were really only imitating idiosyncratic features of the talkers’ speech. If they were imitating dialect features, we would have expected to find effects of vowel pronunciation instead.  While we did find weak evidence for vowel imitation, the effect was not significant.

Taken together, these results suggest that while speakers imitate characteristics of individual talkers’ speech, they do not necessarily imitate well-known dialect markers. It may be that our effect of dialect on imitation was due to peculiarities of our speakers rather than real differences between the Northern and Midland dialects.

Okay, but has anybody bothered to study what it is about foreign accents that makes the speakers so difficult to understand? Mais, oui! I give you graduate student Alison Trude and her faculty advisor, Sarah Brown-Schmidt, both of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign's psychology department, who conducted a series of studies looking at a listener's ability to understand a native English speaker and a native Quebecois speaker both speaking English words and phrases.

A classic illustration of the difference is the respective pronunciations of "bee" and "beet." While a native English speaker will pronounce the "ee" in both the same, the Quebecois will pronounce "beet" with a short "i" sound, so that it sounds like "bit." It was an elaborate experimental setup involving tracking eye movement as participants viewed computer images of various objects while listening to accented and unaccented words describing those images. Supposedly this told the researchers how quickly they understood the words.

The prediction: "Previous research has shown that participants spend more time looking at pictures whose names sound more alike, so it was predicted that participants would look at the picture of the beet more when hearing the English speaker say 'bees' and would look at the picture of the beet less often when hearing the French speaker say 'bees,' because in the French accent, 'bees' and 'beet' sound less similar."

The actual result was just the opposite. Participants looked at the wrong picture more often when listening to the French speaker, and adapted more easily if they heard each of the accented words pronounced with the same ending ("beet", "seat", or "feet"). It also helped if the accented words didn't sound like another English word, since there was less room for further confusion. So Trude and Brown-Schmidt concluded from their experiments that (a) if you're talking to someone with  foreign accent, having that person utter a string of words that sound similar will help you adapt to their accent; and (b) you'll have more trouble if the accent causes you to confuse two real words in English, i.e., the "beet" vs "bit" example (or "beep"). Per Trude and Brown-Schmidt:

These findings show that we as listeners have very particular expectations about how speech should sound. Some theories say that when listening to a foreign speaker, we relax the rules of pronunciation and are more accepting of things that don’t sound quite right because we understand that he or she cannot speak the language perfectly. However, these results suggest the opposite: native speakers of a language are listening for well-formed words, regardless of who’s talking.

This might have a useful application in bringing foreign actors to Hollywood, for example. Arnold Schwarzenegger notoriously kept his lines to a bare minimum in Conan the Barbarian in his early acting days, all uttered in heavily Austrian-accented English. And Hong Kong martial arts master Jackie Chan's move to American films was hampered by his broken English and heavy Chinese accent; ditto for Jet Li, who had, like, three lines in Lethal Weapon 4. And thus we come full circle back to our theme of drunken speech with a look at a unique style of martial arts: Zui Quan, which loosely translates as "drunken boxing." (Yeah, it's just an excuse to bring up Jackie Chan and include an awesome video clip. What of it?)

Chan immortalized the style in two films, Drunken Master I and Drunken Master II, wherein his protagonist gains the upper hand in climactic fight scenes by becoming inebriated –although it's important to strike the right balance: earlier in DM-II, Chan's character becomes a bit too drunk after a fight with his father, slurring his speech and warbling a little ditty called "I Hate Daddy," before getting the crap beaten out of him by thugs because he's too inebriated to fight at all.) In reality, Zui Quan practitioners only imitate the physical movements of drunkards; they are not actually drunk.  Per Wikipedia:

"The postures are created by momentum and weight of the body, and imitation is generally through staggering and certain type of fluidity in the movements. It is considered to be among the most difficult wushu styles to learn due to the need for powerful joints and fingers. … Zui Quan techniques are highly acrobatic and skilled and require a great degree of balance and coordination, such that any person attempting to perform any Zui Quan techniques while intoxicated would be likely to injure himself.

Even though the style seems irregular and off balance it takes the utmost balance to be successful. To excel one must be relaxed and flow with ease from technique to technique. Swaying , drinking, and falling are used to throw off opponents. When the opponent thinks the drunken boxer is vulnerable he is usually well balanced and ready to strike. When swigging a wine cup the practitioner is really practicing grabbing and striking techniques. The waist movements trick opponents into attacking sometimes even falling over. Falls can be used to avoid attacks but also to pin attackers to the ground while vital points are targeted."

You can see Zui Quan in action in this eight-minute choreographed fight scene from Drunken Master II, when Chan was at the height of his athletic prowess. (And remember, he does all his own stunts, so he really is falling backward onto a bed of hot coals. Ouch!) Definitely one of the Best. Fight. Scenes. Ever.

3 thoughts on “drunken masters of lingua franca”

  1. Linguistic theory holds — so far — that some phonetic speech patterns involve substituting easier sounds for harder ones. The most common example is how [p] is ponounced [b] in some languages (Korean, Malaysian) when it occurs between two vowels, while in other languages [b] is pronounced [v] when between two vowels.
    If that’s true, then I think linguistic theory is being a bit simplistic. While I think some sounds might be intrinsically more difficult to articulate ([th], e.g., or the [kh] sound in German and Scottish Gaelic, or a rrrrrolled R, as the Scots do), I think context has a lot more to do with the difficulty of pronouncing certain sounds.
    Many people will have noticed, for instance, how we find it easier and more natural to follow a consonant with a different sound (compare, for instance, how quickly you can say “buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh” versus “buddabuddabuddabuddabudda” or “buggadabuggadabuggada”).
    Taking an example from the Pepé Le Pew image, I don’t believe a person would appreciably change their pronunciation of the ‘P’ in “Echo Point” no matter how drunk. It might become somewhat more explosive, but no less ‘P-ish’.
    However, I can imagine that they would change the pronunciation of the second ‘P’ in a word with two of those sounds in a row, like “paper” (and can even try an imitation of what it would sound like, which isn’t a [b] sound, either – more like a hard “wh” sound, with maybe a little bit of ‘ff’ thrown in; but since I’m a) not drunk, and b) only one sample, I don’t claim it to be evidence of anything).

  2. Holy cripes re: the unconscious mirroring of other people’s accents. I find that I have to be really careful during interviews. Maybe some people’s linguistic base is just more… porous?
    This is a great post, and thanks for your kind words.

  3. MikeinHouston

    These kinds of things are showing up EVERYWHERE! A couple of weeks ago, the WSJ had as its crossword puzzle theme business definitions as would be pronounced by Elmer Fudd.

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