Saturday 11 June 2011

Fluent mumbles and precise vagueness

In cases of suspected or actual disruption to communication, we tend to repeat exactly what caused the glitch, only louder, and slower. A bit like turning the ignition key on a dead engine more and more fiercely, and more and more deliberately, in the hope that sustained, precise action will induce cooperation. We believe, in other words, that intelligibility is best procured through disfluent delivery. On the other hand, utterances like “And then, er... it just went on, y’know, just like that”, which are sometimes said to be disfluent, are perfectly intelligible in their contexts.

It is true that vague wording and mumbled articulation are not usually associated with desirable linguistic practice. They go under cover labels like “verbal crutches”, and they are attributed to all sorts of speech-language shortcomings, from poor vocabulary, through syntactic indecisiveness, to (clinical) disfluency itself. We’ve formed such opinions from what our elders and betters keep telling us about the great language users. On close inspection, however, the greatness of these uses turns out to have been preserved for us mostly through print.

The big revolution that sound and video recording technology brought to language studies was the insight it gave us into how we actually use our languages, and so into what constitutes evidence of language ability in spoken or signed modes. What we actually say or sign doesn’t look good in print, because print is not its mode, and vice versa.

We are learning that apparent imprecision and hesitation in fact mark proficient language use. When we say and what not or thingamajig, we’re signposting what we said before, or relevant material in the surroundings where our exchange is taking place, for example. Umming, ahhing, and falling silent fluently also assist spoken interaction. We thereby highlight content (saving us the trouble to say ‘now listen carefully, what I’ll say next is really, really important’), keep conversational turns (‘wait, wait now, I’m not done talking yet’), and buy time when we’re looking for the right turn of phrase or attempting to repair a botched start to an utterance. Michael Erard’s book, suggestively titled Um..., tells us about this. Celeste Kidd, Katherine White and Richard Aslin, in their article Toddlers use speech disfluencies to predict speakers’ referential intentions, in turn explain how we learn to make use of these devices, as we learn our languages.

It seems, then, that there is more to language building than the w o r d-based constructions that we have assumed of child learning, and so immortalised as recipe for school learning too. (Or was this the other way around now??)

Languages are not this:

Photo: Ralf Roletschek (Wikimedia Commons)

but this:

Photo: Wamito (Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Cauldwell first proposed this analogy, in a 1992 paper titled ‘Of Streams and Bricks: new ways of presenting the spoken language to learners’, published in Speak Out!, the Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group.

Fuzzy devices flow naturally along the characteristic prosody of each language, and give us clues about their speakers’ favoured vowels and consonants: have you noticed that we erm... and ahh... and nnn... differently in different languages, when we’re thinking about producing language? They also match culture-bound body language, gesture, gaze, that give precise meaning to face-to-face linguistic interaction. In her multilingually-titled article And stuff und so, Maryann Overstreet analyses vagueness in two related languages. This Linguist question and summary of replies lists a wider sample of vague words in several languages.

We are further learning that language users in fact expect vagueness and mumbles in meaningful interaction. These are both linguistic tools, in that they have their own grammar, and communicative tools, in that their use reflects shared knowledge of what the interaction is about. Your interlocutors expect you to let them be part of what you’re saying by letting them fill in what you’re not saying.

So now you know: if you want to sound really fluent in your new languages, stop trying to engage with le mot juste or the model syntactic rule that you remember from page 672 of your textbook, and engage instead with your interlocutors, here and now, by tossing in a vague word or two, and mumbling a bit from time to time. This is why Joan Cutting, in her book Vague Language Explored, recommends inclusion of these devices in school language syllabuses.

Learning to use languages from what we experience around us, in school or at home, probably reflects the major single difference between the two kinds of learning, as I’ve said before. In both cases, however, what we do indeed learn can be taken as evidence not of good learning but of faulty learning abilities. Know whadda mean? Aahm... oh well, next time I’ll talk about that kind of stuff anyway.

© MCF 2011

Next post: People see, people do. Saturday 18th June 2011. 


  1. Maryann Overstreet14 June 2011 at 02:50

    Right on, Madalena!

  2. A couple of things I thought of when I read your post. The first one is that the image of the river would be anathema to Milan Kundera. In his book, The Art of the Novel, he rages against the concept of fluidity. Well, I disagree, even if I like his books.

    The second one was when you mentioned the 'er'. 'hmmm' phenomenon. I've come to the conclusion that in all those 'sos' and 'likes' a teenager is speaking pure Shakespeare. :-) If only, then, we could decode their speech!

    Greetings from London.

  3. Vielen Dank, Maryann! Your article was truly enlightening.

    Cubano: Ah, Shakespeare in his teens! I wonder what he would have sounded, like, like? I’ll have a few things to say about more recent teens in a coming post. And you also made me wonder what Shakespeare’s views about brick walls, rivers and languages might have been.
    Gracias por esto!



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