The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English is the product of a research project begun in 1997 to answer these questions:

· What are the characteristics of contemporary academic speech—its grammar, its vocabulary, its functions and purposes, its fluencies and dysfluencies?
· Are these characteristics different for different academic disciplines and for different classes of speakers?

The History page says:

The goal of the first phase of the project was to record and transcribe close to 200 hours (approximately 1.8 million words) of academic speech from across the university. In June 2001, we finished the recording goal, with over 190 total hours recorded. In April 2002, we completed transcribing and proofreading all the transcripts… This search engine is notable for the large number of speaker and speech-event categories that can be selected. The search engine has increased in popularity each year since its launch, approaching as many as 140,000 hits in 2006.

The ELI committed resources to MICASE for a series of interlocking reasons. First, there was originally no database of this kind available. Second, we strongly suspected that once we examined the corpus for recurrent grammatical and phraseological patterns, we would find many divergences from those described in current grammar and vocabulary books, which have largely relied on introspection or on features of written texts. MICASE will thus provide authentic material in sufficient quantity to redefine our concepts of academic speech. Third, we eventually hope to be able to track generalized changes in speech patterns as people gain experience of university culture. (Although we know quite a lot about how academic writing evolves as students progress, our current perceptions of speech changes within academic cultures are largely anecdotal.) Fourth, with all this new information, we—and others elsewhere—will be in a better position to develop more appropriate ESL and English for Academic Purpose teaching and testing materials, and to evaluate how best to incorporate corpus work into EAP programs.

There’s discussion, and some more specific links, at the MetaFilter post from which I took these links.


  1. Yeah, someone ought to do science on those motherfuckers. They’ve been messing with everyone else all this time. Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

  2. “In this paper I will argue that ….”

  3. Now the shoe’s on the other foot
    Usually both feet are shod. It’s just that one is now stepping on the other.
    Or could it be that many academics really don’t earn enough to afford more than one shoe?? I’m still trying to decide if that is a good or a bad thing. A good thing, perhaps, in that such academics would be closer to the grass roots of things. A bad thing, perhaps, in that it might be taken as an entitlement to be chauffered between lectures.
    I just flashed on what “the shoe is on the other foot” probably meant originally – that the right shoe is on the left foot, and the left shoe is on the right.
    The expression may have originated in the 19th century, when the rights of the left were an important issue. I wonder if Krushchev was banging his right or left shoe on his desk that time at the UN. Maybe there was a subtle political message there that people missed.

  4. chauffered between lectures
    Clarification: because otherwise they would have to chaussure themselves between lectures.

  5. Navel-gazing.

  6. Navel-gazing
    But there are distinctions which are not just academic, between “outies” and “innies”.

  7. I have browsed several MICASE transcripts, in the categories Senior Faculty, Native Speaker American English, Humanities and Arts:
    Philosophy Colloquium
    American Literature Lecture
    Historical Linguistics Lecture
    There were two things that struck me forcibly in these transcripts: the frequency of “uh”, and the rambling, just-woke-up-after-Jim’s-stag-party-last-night character of how the speakers speak. Unfortunately, the lecture dates but not the time of day are specified. At the end of this comment are excerpts from the transcripts, to show what I mean.
    As for “uh”, it occurs with the lowest frequency in the historical linguistics lecture. But I find the rambling speech in all three transcripts pretty alarming. I would have expected senior faculty to have a better-than-average command of spoken English, to have learned to prepare for lectures, and to actually demonstrate these abilities. Instead, I get the impression that these people are incapable of speaking in an organized fashion – or else they don’t give a damn how they speak.
    It’s not that I expect academics on all occasions to speak in polished English ripe for publication. But I do expect them to think before they speak, and to demonstrate when they speak that they know whereof they speak. Otherwise, I’d rather read a book, or go to a movie.
    On this MICASE evidence, I have to say that the following sentence, which Hat quotes from the history section at the MICASE site, is a pretty scary statement of intent:

    with all this new information, we—and others elsewhere—will be in a better position to develop more appropriate ESL and English for Academic Purpose teaching and testing materials, and to evaluate how best to incorporate corpus work into EAP programs.

    Perhaps I should rethink my ideas on creative techniques for learning languages, particularly one’s native language. Right now, I would favor the old precept: spare the rod, and spoil the lecturer.
    Here are the excerpts:
    Philosophy Colloquium

    S1: i’ll just ask it. um… so, uh, we were saying in the break um, you discussed this letter, uh from, from Hume to Hutcheson uh that’s, talking about similar aspects of Hutcheson’s views and whether, [S2: Speaker information restricted] Hutcheson is at all troubled, by, some of these consequences and, i was just wondering, um, about the following, so on the voluntarist, conception, uh the worry is that… God won’t be lovable. right? but now on on this conception, that, that problem won’t arise right because, uh, i mean if there is a God and if we conceive of him as benevolent even if the seat of, even if moral sentiment, uh is in us but not in him, that has no effect, on our moral judgment of him [S2: Speaker information restricted] because what we’re morally, responding to is say his benevolence or something like that. uh in fact i- i- i mean this brings out sort of an interesting feature of, Hume and Hutcheson’s views which is, that i say is opposed to Butler or somebody like Shaftesbury, uh, the agents, moral n- the agent need have, no moral understanding of, of his or her own, motives or character, um that that’s just irrelevant to the mo- the moral goodness, of of the agent since that’s all figured in terms of benevolence. so w- we could still love God, uh we’d still judge God morally good we do so in terms of our, own moral sentiment, the fact that he lacks moral sentiment would just be beside the point in a way. [S2: Speaker information restricted] so it’d be, have a very different kind of consequence.

    American Literature Lecture

    S1: … last time, i tried to, suggest to you the, agenda that uh, the conscious agenda, that Henry James had in writing The American, uh that in the preface, that he wrote about almost thirty-five years later, uh i- and he’s remembering the origins of this novel, how the idea came to him what he wanted to do in it, uh and if you recall that he said that he wanted to create a situation in which, an American, in some ways a, a typical American, um going to Europe, uh i- is dealt some grievous, injustice, by a society that thinks itself uh superior, to him, in every way. uh and that the occasion would arise for him to be able to exact some kind of uh retribution or revenge for that injustice. uh and, the question that fascinated James was, what would he do, uh in that case? uh and, um so we get to that situation today when we co- we’ll come, in a bit to talk about uh the letter that he has that would, inflict some, significant damage, presumably, uh on the Bellegardes, and his, decision, not to do it, not to use it, uh, in that way. but with that in mind the, part of the novel that i had you read for the first day and that’s a lot, over three hundred pages, in some ways really doesn’t, develop, that particular, uh complexity very much, uh the wrong, that is done Christopher Newman, that comes only in chapter eighteen. uh and even then um, i- i- in one sense we wonder is this uh, a grievous wrong i mean i- i- uh i guess in one way it is when, her family forces Claire to, break off her engagement to him, um but in that, uh chapter, when uh, uh…

    Historical Linguistics Lecture

    S1: okay. all righty um what i want to do is continue with this discussion that we’ve been trying to show, between the interaction of history and, language change, and again as i state we’re using the Romance languages as sort of our test case, because we have an abundant documentation of the situation both of the historical development of the Romance languages the historical background of real world events which occurred from the start of the Roman Empire right up through the fall of the Roman Empire, and the ultimate uh fate of the various provinces of the Roman Empire, and we also have an abundant corpus of linguistic documentation. so to a large extent the Romance languages present an ideal case, uh for studying, the development of language against the background of history. or conversely how history affects language. one of the issues that i want to particularly concentrate on today is the issue of the linguistic, uh impact of language contact. one of the main historical themes that i’ve been stressing, throughout the last uh couple of classes has been that in the history of th- in the linguistic history of the Roman Empire, we’ve had movements of peoples. we first of all have the expansion of the Romans. as the Romans left Rome and over the course of several centuries expanded their territorial domain, to what was to become the Roman Empire which at its height, stretched from Ireland all the way in uh through west bo- well most of uh central western and eastern Europe and through the Mediterranean basin both the north and the south shore the Mediterranean, and beyond into Asia Minor. other pe- movements of peoples that are also relevant will be we’ll see a little later when the Roman Empire falls apart. and when various outside groups outside uh ethnic groups, uh invade or enter perhaps that would be the better word there really wasn’t an invasion, in the strict organized military sense but when uh outside groups entered the Roman Empire, this also led to the movements of peoples, and who came into contact with the Romans so in both cases with these with the (j-) territorial expansion, of the Romans as they moved i- and expanded their empire and then with the, uh entry into the Roman Empire of other peoples, the result of this is language contact in other words Latin, comes into contact,

  8. In the excerpt from the philosophy colloquium, the speaker S1 is not delivering a lecture, but seems to be asking a question following an address by the visiting lecturer whom S1 had invited to speak.

  9. There were two things that struck me forcibly in these transcripts: the frequency of “uh”
    The frequency of “uh” is a feature in almost transcribed speech except memorized lines. Very little transcribed speech looks at all good transcribed.
    We can edit our posts so that no one knows what out real-time language would have been. But speakers can’t.

  10. Well, Grumps, that’s just the difference between spoken (academic) English and written (academic) English for you. It would probably sound just fine if we listened to it.
    And now that the corpus is there, linguists can study this phenomenon.

  11. There are wide differences in the frequency of “uh” used by various people. I almost never use “uh” or “um” in English (or the equivalents in German), because I have disciplined myself not to do so. I don’t know how much I did it in the past, just that I don’t do it now.
    When you think before you speak, it’s easy to learn to do without “uh”. There are two reasons why I started paying attention to this matter. One was my determination to master German, with no sloppiness or verbal stabs in the dark. Another reason was that I was extremely impressed by the controlled, fluently improvised speech of politicians, intellectuals etc. in talkshows on Radio 4, which I have been listening to off and on since the early 70s. I figured if they can do it, so can I.
    But as I said, it’s not so much the “uh”s in the transcripts as the rambling, disorganized thought processes that they document. These people are senior faculty members talking in their own academic fields, for God’s sake!

  12. that’s just the difference between spoken (academic) English and written (academic) English for you. It would probably sound just fine if we listened to it.
    lukas, clearly I have standards for academic speaking that are different from yours. If you are accustomed to the kind of thing recorded in the transcripts, then of course you will see nothing unusual about it. I am accustomed to different standards, as I explained in my last post.
    It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that many people think I’m being pedantic or style-prescriptivist. I certainly will not attempt to convert anyone to my point of view.

  13. I too would make a distinction between prepared remarks and Q & A, and the quoted remarks form the above comment don’t seem to be from prepared remarks. I try to avoid vocalized pauses too, but our U.S. President, who many consider to be a charismatic speaker, uses them quite a bit, in fact his political opponents were very fond of counting the “uh’s” in any particular speech. But you have to listen to a recording; any transcripts of politicians’ speeches you find in major news sources usually have the hesitations and vocalized pauses smoothed over.

  14. Forget the “uh”s and hesitations, which is what I’ve been doing all this time. Does the transcripted speech then sound OK to you?
    As I said, it’s not the unpolished English that bothers me – but rather the fact that the thought processes are all over the place. That’s the way I would sound if I attempted to hold forth, in a classroom, on a book that I just read, about a subject I knew hardly anything about, like linguistics. But I would never do that, in particular because it’s not my job to teach students things I know nothing about.
    What I do in Hat’s comment threads is an entirely different kettle of fish. I always take great pains to be intelligible, even when I’m just dicking around and what I say is hardly worth the HTML it’s printed on.
    Has no one ever heard lectures that are better organized than the transcripted ones? Are they so infrequent? I would be interested to hear that that is the case – sociologically interested.

  15. I’ve noticed Obama’s “uh”s. They don’t bother me a whit, because his sentences and thoughts are so well-organized. That doesn’t mean I always agree with him. But at least I understand what he’s saying, without having to waste time trying to figure it out. Unlike the case with our previous president.

  16. Well, I just suspect that, if you sat in one of those lectures, you might find it easier to pick up the train of thought than by reading those examples. There is just so much missing (context, intonation, handouts, or, god forbid, PowerPoint slides) that we cannot put ourselves in the same situation as a listener.
    But maybe I’m just used to sloppy lecturing, entering my 6th year in university…

  17. marie-lucie says

    I have done a number of recordings for linguistic research (I mean that I recorded other people) and it is very difficult to transcribe direct speech accurately because of the hesitations, “uhs”, false starts, etc., which show on the tape even when the person appeared to be speaking quite fluently. Trying to write down every little detail is frustrating too, because we hear selectively and unconsciously edit as we hear or transcribe. Reading a verbatim interview is also painful, as very few people can speak “like a book” and those hesitations, etc stand out more and more with repetition. Like Lukas, I think that those lecturers would have sounded much better to the listeners in the room than to those who only heard the tape, and those people in turn would be better pleased with the tape than with the verbatim visual transcription.

  18. michael farris says

    As much as it pains me to disagree with Grumbly “popcorn hero” Stu, embolalia is a normal feature of all natural and spontaneous language. Yes, some people overuse space fillers in an unskilled way which can be maddening, but as long as a person can keep the number of uh’s and like’s and ‘as it were’s under control there’s no problem.
    One of the things I tell students (learning English as a second language) is: “Don’t try to do things in a foreign language that you can’t do in your own.” This includes space fillers, don’t try to learn to speak without space fillers, learn the right ones and use them appropriately.
    This is actually kind of radical advice since a lot of the Polish glottodidactic establishment views space fillers as a roadblock to fluency.
    Also, space fillers help regulate conversation and are used to assure mutual comprehension; removing them can be a jarring experience.
    I’ve heard some Polish Anglicists who’ve learned to speak English in crystal clear fully formed sentences with no space fillers and I’d rather get a root canal than talk to them.
    Finally, in a lecture where you expect people to learn something (as opposed to sitting quietly and basking in your brilliance) you have to pay attention to signs of attention and miscomprehension. This is normally going to result in space fillers and a style that might seem disjointed if only listened to or seen in transcribed form. When I lecture in English, even about a subject I know backwards there’s a lot of backing and filling in and rephrasing as I try to keep as many students as possible following what I’m saying. There’s also the problem of beginning a sentence and realizing it’ll use terminology the students might not have and rephrasing it in a more listener-friendly manner. In real time that helps but it won’t look good on paper.

  19. Jean E. Fox Tree studies “the collateral signals people produce in talking on the fly”. (I came across her research through this article and interview.)

  20. embolalia is a normal feature of all natural and spontaneous language. Yes, some people overuse space fillers in an unskilled way which can be maddening, but as long as a person can keep the number of uh’s and like’s and ‘as it were’s under control there’s no problem.
    “Normal”, “natural”, “spontaneous” – well, well! Please remember that I am discussing academic lectures, not smalltalk in a café.
    My point, reiterated several times, is not about the uh’s and like’s as a phenomenon per se. Giving Obama as an example, I said the uh’s don’t bother me, because the rest is well-organized. In the transcripts, though, the uh’s are not an independent feature that can be eliminated to produce more clarity. To see this, eliminate them and try to follow the rest, listening in the mind’s ear. The uh’s in the transcripts seem to me to be merely a consequence of the speakers’ not having planned in advance, overall and for each sentence as it comes, what they intend to say.
    It really is possible to plan in advance for a lecture, you know, and think before you speak! It’s a matter of practice and discipline. It’s something I expect of academics in lectures. You may think that’s too much to expect, because it’s not “natural”. Well, there we disagree, if only because there are different kinds of naturalness. They all come with practice, but there are different kinds of practice.
    A master craftsman (I’m thinking merely of the German Meister in a craft, I don’t know what that’s called in America) learns to do things that beginners in his craft can’t yet do, or do well. These things become second nature to the craftsman. You don’t want the plumbing in your new house to be installed by spontaneous beginners, but by people who know how it should be done – possibly supervising others who don’t yet know how, but can be directed and corrected. Is it unnatural to be a trained craftsman, or to prefer to hire one for your new house rather than somebody off the street who has been there, done that?
    in a lecture where you expect people to learn something (as opposed to sitting quietly and basking in your brilliance) you have to pay attention to signs of attention and miscomprehension
    It seems you believe delivering lectures in well-organized sentences is a demonstration of brilliance, complacent brilliance even. That’s setting the bar for brilliance pretty low. Brilliance is something quite different, in my view, attainable only by a few people. It’s not something that every university lecturer can achieve, and it’s not something that is needed in university lectures. More generally, brilliance is not something that everyone who regularly speaks to groups of people can achieve, or needs to.
    It took me several years of practice to learn appropriate ways to speak before large and small groups of people. There are many different speaking situations, and many different ways to correct the course of your speaking when you have the impression that you’re not coming across. I have found that when I notice while speaking that I should probably rephrase something for better intelligibility (having observed blank expressions on the faces of some listeners), it’s better to finish the clause or sentence, then rephrase. It only increases confusion to break off in the middle of a sentence and start a new one. This led me to recognize that it’s better to speak in shorter sentences, so I can rephrase without getting myself and the audience tangled up in broken syntax. This is an iterative learning process.
    I’ve heard some Polish Anglicists who’ve learned to speak English in crystal clear fully formed sentences with no space fillers and I’d rather get a root canal than talk to them.
    Why are you loath to talk with those people? Is it because you might feel internally compelled to speak in a similar way, to avoid the appearance of incompetence? That would be the forces of example and emulation at work. But what’s wrong with “crystal clear fully formed sentences”, for pete’s sake?? Are they so intimidating? It is possible to make a distinction between clarity, on the one hand, and syntactically perfect, polysyllabic one-upmanship on the other. Maybe you’re talking about this second kind of “fully formed”.
    Do the forces of example and emulation play no role in academic teaching situations, should they play no role? Are academic lecturers not expected to be more than bookworms plucked out of the public library reading room, and accorded a title? What a pity to waste all that emulative potential in the students.
    To witness how it is possible even to extemporize in well-organized sentences, you can listen to any of the talkshows, or news programs, or special features containing brief interviews, on Radio 4 on the internet.

  21. marie-lucie says

    The three excerpts given as examples are not that bad if you delete the uhs, the commas that show slight pauses, and a few other details typical of speech. As someone pointed out, the “philosophy colloquium” excerpt is not from a lecture but from a discussion. The other two are from actual lectures, or more precisely classroom presentations (which are usually less formal and take into account things that have gone on before, as in the second text) but probably not in front of a very large audience, and they are delivered in a colloquial style, as are many such presentations. In fact the pauses, uhs, etc slow down the delivery, so that the listeners have more time to process what is being said. A person reading a prepared lecture, or an academic paper at a conference, often reads too fast for the audience, even one that has some knowledge of the subject. As for the organization, an excerpt of a few lines does not mean that the overall presentation for the class, is not organized.
    Yes, some people are able to extemporize in well-organized sentences, but not everyone is, and radio or TV only show very short snippets of interviews or reactions from less fluent speakers. I, for instance, would not want to be interviewed on a broadcasting medium, because I am not a very fluent speaker, especially if I am nervous. I am not a very fluent writer either, as I change my mind too often before arriving at the final version of a sentence or paragraph. The computer was a godsend to me as I could never compose on a typewriter, and composing with pencil and paper left an awful lot of crumpled paper in the wastebasket.

  22. michael farris says

    I think a lot depends on whether you regard a lecture as a set piece or a supplement to readings and other out-of-class work or a form of education in and of itself.
    The rules you set for yourself and others may work for the former, but not for the latter.
    Working out exactly what you want to say is good for a formal speech where people are not welcome to interrupt and don’t necessarily have to remember much of what you’ve said.
    Instucting a group of people will usually require that you pay attention to how well they seem to be following what you’re saying and will then involve some backing and hoeing and rephrasing when things don’t go as smoothly as you’d planned. And, as marie-lucie has pointed out, the judicious use of filler words helps slow down the speech to a level that makes retention of what you’re saying easier and in conjunction with a more casual style makes it easier for students to interrupt with questions. I suppose it would be possible to do the same thing by making a certain amount of the prepared remarks vacuous but then you run the danger of students remembering those parts most clearly.
    The three best lecturers I’ve ever listened to all used informal language, with lots of pauses to overtly (and covertly) check cómprehension before going forward and presented difficult ideas slowly in little seemingly disjointed chunks and were willing to back up and rephrase things to keep their class with them. They all used normal filler words in normal proportion. I’m sure that if their lectures were transcribed they wouldn’t look so impressive on paper but they were riveting and informative in person.
    I don’t enjoy talking to people who don’t use filler words at all because that’s not how normal people talk. The people in question do use normal filler words in Polish, which makes the avoidance of them seem all the stranger in English. Talking to someone who abstains from the normal give and take of speech (including fillers and false starts and interrupted sentences) is a little like talking to a robot. And the impression is often created that the person isn’t listening to you at all but planning their next oration.

  23. m-l: I am not a very fluent writer either, as I change my mind too often before arriving at the final version of a sentence or paragraph. The computer was a godsend to me as I could never compose on a typewriter, and composing with pencil and paper left an awful lot of crumpled paper in the wastebasket.
    I’m like this too. But there are writers who write quickly, never having to alter a word — Christopher Hitchens is one, I read — and I wonder if they also speak more fluently than me. I suspect their speech is as padded with filler as mine.

  24. marie-lucie says

    AJP, welcome to the club! But I have met some very fluent speakers who speak with a minimum of fillers. That does not mean that what they say is always interesting.

  25. I find that marie-lucie and michael are contesting two different claims of mine. One is that the MICASE transcripts are examples of disorganized, ill-prepared speech by academic lecturers. The other is a very general one: that there are more than two kinds of rhetorical competence that can be acquired for, and that are advantageous in, the various communicational situations in which one moves.
    Neither of them shares my low opinion of the speech that the transcripts purport to record as being that of university senior faculty. So there’s nothing I can do here but make another sorrowful note on the general decline of standards and civilization, and toss it in my storage bin of similar notes.
    As to rhetorical competencies, it seems that marie-lucie and michael both believe that if you don’t adhere to the school of uminterrupted speech, then you can only speak in torrents, like a mad robot. Both bring forward the idea that fillers are “naturally” needed to prevent the speaker from flooding the audience with fluency. In other words, what they are saying seems to amount to a claim that there are only two methods of (rhetorical) delivery – but in effect only one, the uminterrupted one, because the other one is obviously intolerable. There is a suggestion in what they say that the non-uminterrupted delivery method would be like reading a book or a prepared speech out loud, at breakneck speed, without the “natural give and take” of uminterrupted bumbling.
    This is a very strange position to be arguing. It must be based more on conviction than evidence. With my link to Radio 4, I provided ample opportunities to check the evidence. I have been listening to people talking on Radio 4 over almost 40 years. It is undeniable that there are many, many people in Great Britain who have learned to speak English naturally and fluently, but without uminterruption and without flooding.
    But I myself know by experience that it is possible to learn by practice how to speak in different ways in different situations. At the end of the 80s, the company I worked for arranged for every employee to take part in “rhetoric seminars”. When this plan was announced, I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, and tried unsuccessfully to weasel out of it. I thought something like: “me, the master of the overwhelmingly clever diatribe?? I don’t need no rhetoric nohow!”.
    Well, imagine my surprise in the actual seminars. Aomng other things, we took turns playing roles in imaginary situations. Cameras were used so we could consider our performances after the fact, as seen from another persons’s physical point of view,. i.e. that of the camera. Not only did I see a certain smarty-pants making a bad impression even on himself – I saw other people having uncomfortable experiences with fear, nervousness, playing-the-fool …. The trainer explained various aspects of speaking and interacting, and talked not only about techniques, but also touchy-feely stuff like “do not offend other people (except on blogs …)”. Oh, the shame of it! But those seminars really wrenched me out of my complacency.
    Even before the seminars, I had had the experience of being very nervous before a largish audience whom I had to address, if only briefly. I had forgotten this nervousness before it came up in the seminars and I was able to deal with it explicitly there, talking with colleagues who were participating.
    The state of play today: I can speak to and with large audiences, or small ones, and in project groups where I moderate and present things. I have had practice at this, I wasn’t born with these abilities. I always prepare my thoughts. I use short sentences. I pause slightly between sentences to observe reactions, and simultaneously to formulate the next sentence in my head (thus the short sentences). If necessary, I first finish a sentence and reformulate something previous that hadn’t been understood. I ask explicitly, and repeatedly, whether everyone has understood so far, or has understood the last point if it was difficult or unfamiliar. I don’t necessarily believe that I have been understood merely because no one has dared to say so. Etc. etc.
    Why have I learned to avoid fillers, why do I think before I speak? For many, many reasons, among them: it puts less of a strain on others to understand me, it makes me think harder about what I want to say, it is more considerate. The discipline, since it has become second nature, gives me more time to pay attention to what’s getting across to my interlocutors. This paying of attention is built in to the technique. I don’t waste their time and mine rummaging in my thoughts for something to toss in their direction.
    But I am still sometimes too aggressive …….

  26. The insistence that uminterrupted speech is the only “natural” kind of speech could be called linguistic darwinism. Such an attitude is an attempt to inject inevitability into cherished habits, making them seem as if they were not habits after all.
    It could also be called an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, in one acceptation: that uminterrupted speech, because it is natural, is also good and right (in either a moral or utilitarian sense).

  27. Also, the claim that embolalia is natural raises big questions about what linguists think they are studying, when they are not study recorded speech. Since embolalia, almost by definition, does not occur in written records, it would seem that textually oriented linguists study a very small portion of linguistic output, in fact one that is by definition atypical of the spoken language. Consequently, it becomes very problematic to extrapolate from texts to “the language”.

  28. One way out of this last-named dilemma might be to look at written language as being, in some sense, not derived from or based on oral language. Something like that viewpoint appears to be the subject of Rethinking Writing by Roy Harris.
    I started that book twice, but gave out halfway through each time. From the beginning of the book, Harris says over and over that he’s going to get down to the main subject in detail, but that he must first get this and that thing clear in the reader’s mind. With the book half finished, he was still clearing minds, so I got annoyed. I had the suspicion that I was heading for a let-down.

  29. Since embolalia, almost by definition, does not occur in written records
    Um, Grumbly, you do sometimes see it in comment threads…sometimes as a preface to disagreeing with someone (sort of like *ahem*), or when trying to introduce delicately a subject that is perhaps, um, a bit naughty, but that (while acknowledging its adult and perhaps unsuitable nature) you want to discuss in an academic, not prurient, manner.

  30. Has anyone else run across “erm” as an academic version of “um”? We hates it, precioussss… yesss… we hates it forever.

  31. Good point, Nijma. But those kinds of comments are conscious, arch attempts to get the effect of actual speech being transcripted.
    It’s a familiar topos that speech in the presence of an interlocutor provides many facilities for getting across what you mean that are missing in the written language, or considered unacceptable there.
    marie-lucie and michael seem to agree that embolalia is out of place in books (one of the things linguists study), but always welcome and natural when speaking. My claim is that embolalic speech is only one habit, one learned ability among many actual and possible other ones. It’s no more or less “natural” than any other speech register.

  32. Has anyone else run across “erm” as an academic version of “um”?

    It’s a non-rhotic version of “um”, as Language Log helpfully clears up for us. Looks like I was writing a lot of German in June 2008; I miss June 2008!

  33. to clarify: … missing in certain *types of* written language, or considered unacceptable there – for instance academic publications

  34. David Marjanović says

    linguistic darwinism

    Where does Darwin come into this? ~:-|

  35. michael farris says

    Nij, I think ‘erm’ is a British non-rhotic spelling of ‘um’.
    Grumbly, I think you misunderstand me. I take no position on the appropriateness of the style or organization in the documents you linked to. I glanced through part of the historical linguistics one and my provisional opinion was roughly the same as marie-lucie’s – it was probably natural sounding speech that looks worse than it was because of transcription conventions. Unless I can hear it (and preferably see it too) I have no way of judging it (and seeing it recorded wouldn’t be as good as seeing it live).
    I do agree that there are times when a person might want to avoid fillers or keep them to the bare minimum and/or use what I call covert fillers (sections of speech that sound like they are connected to the rest of what a person is saying but which empty of semantic content and serve most of the same functions as uh, like etc). I also agree that some people overuse fillers and that can be maddening. But fillers wouldn’t exist in every known language (AFAIK) if they weren’t useful at times.
    So, I simply fail to perceive the point of adopting speech with no fillers as a consistent style all the time. It can be done, I guess, but I don’t know what is gained when that is simply not the norm in everyday conversation. It reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s supposed tic of not using adverbs in -mente. What’s the point?

  36. Where does Darwin come into this?
    Vide social darwinism.

  37. So, I simply fail to perceive the point of adopting speech with no fillers as a consistent style all the time.
    michael: nothing of what I wrote, I think, could be taken to imply that I was urging exclusive use of filler-less speech in all situations. I usually try to hold to it myself, just to keep in practice, but it is possible to speak casually and off-hand without fillers. You appeared to be denying that that was even possible (“bask in your brilliance”, “planning [their] next oration”).
    I was arguing against the claim that filler-less speech is unnatural per se, and that all listeners must always feel that it is unnatural, in every situation.
    I was also arguing that filler-less speech has many advantages over the uminterrupted kind in an academic environment, or where groups of people are being spoken to / with in a goal-oriented environment, for instance at work, or coaching a football team.
    I also argued that filler-less speech can be learned by practice, just like the uminterrupted kind. It seemed to me that you were particularly intent on arguing that uminterrupted speech is not learned and can be unlearned, but is on the contrary “natural”.

  38. It reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s supposed tic of not using adverbs in -mente. What’s the point?
    I gave an answer to that above. Filler-less speech makes it easier for other people to follow you. Thinking before speaking shows consideration towards others, and is preferable to throwing rummaged thoughts at them.
    Somehow I get the impression that you don’t believe it is really possible to learn to speak without fillers naturally – as if this were some kind of higher mathematics.
    the norm in everyday conversation
    That clearly depends on who you deal with every day. There are various and sundry everyday norms. I spilt a lot of HTML describing some of them, in the above comments.
    By the way, do you know anything about this Roy Harris dude?

  39. Grumbly, congratulations on your speaking prowess. But you seemed to be taking an extreme position, and then attributing to me or michael farris (writing quite independently) a position at the other extreme. Neither he nor I have said anything to suggest that one could just “throw rummaged thoughts” at an audience, or advocated “no need to think before speaking”, just because there might be fillers and false starts in a lecturer’s speech. It seems to me that if I heard both you and michael give presentations, there might not be as much difference between you two as you think.

  40. marie-lucie: maybe you’re right that if michael and I gave separate presentations, there might not be that much difference between them. But it would be a big surprise to me and to him too, I expect, when I consider that he thinks the transcript of the hist. ling. lecture is not so bad, whereas I am disgusted at it. He also insists on the naturalness and unavoidability of fillers, and on spontaneity. “Rummaged thoughts” is obviously an exaggeration, but that’s what the MICASE transcripts sound like to me.
    I wonder exactly what you are implying when you describe what I have acquired as “speaking prowess”. I hope I’m not been picky about your words here, but I wouldn’t call it prowess, which sounds to me like “out-of-the-ordinary”. I am not a prowed speaker/moderator/presenter, by any means. I have to drastically cut back on the verbal firecrackers and sardonic exaggerations in speaking situations – if that’s what you’re thinking of. That kind of stuff is not helpful when reporting on project status to management.
    What I learned and practiced, in those seminars and over the years after that, is just a standard competence, the kind that any average joe in any line of work finds useful when he wants to rise above the assembly line. Remember that the rhetoric seminars were for everyone in the company, not some Ciceronian elite.
    I hope you will not take the following remarks as an impertinence. Your well-organized, well-presented, convincing comments in Hat threads are renowned. It was actually when you wrote that sometimes nervousness prevents you from speaking fluently, that I suddenly remembered the rhetoric seminars at all, and my own difficulties with nervousness then. Mine, and those of many people. In fact, I can still get slightly nervous – but in a different way than in previous years.
    There really are techniques of learning to get around these difficulties – through practice and discussions with a good trainer, working with a group of people. There are no psychoanalytic, born-again, conversion etc. experiences involved. The whole business is not earth-shaking. Just a learnable competence, like tying shoelaces. If you think it might be useful to have the competence, you can acquire it. If you don’t think it might be useful, that’s fine too.

  41. Why aren’t these abilities practiced more in schools? Then they wouldn’t seem to be artificial deformations of naturalness. You can’t convince me that run-of-the-mill, time-serving indifference to communication skills has no modelling and reinforcing effects on behavior. But of course the issue is not restricted to schools.

  42. I wouldn’t call it prowess, which sounds to me like “out-of-the-ordinary”.
    Come, come, no need to be depreciate it. You are doubtless right that such competence is available to anyone, but equally clearly it is out of the ordinary. I’ve heard very, very few speakers who had achieved it. You should take at least modest pride in having done so.
    Why aren’t these abilities practiced more in schools?
    Perhaps because most people aren’t as bothered by the lack of them as you are?

  43. “Be depreciate”? Bah, too early in the day. Strike that “be.”

  44. Speech classes teach that stuff, but they tend to be discontinued, either as old-fashioned or as frills.
    I confess that I’m one of those who mistrusts anyone speaks too perfectly. I tend to suspect that I’m being shown a carefully constructed surface without being let in behind the scenes at all, and also that the person I’m listening to is so invested in a perfect presentation that he has little time to think about flaws in his argument or new possible developments of his ideas.
    I agree that people who make their living by the oral transmission of informations should pay attention to presentation, though.

  45. a carefully constructed surface without being let in behind the scenes at all
    Are you sure you want to go there?
    <*wild, demonic laughter issues from the bowls of Köln*>
    There will be a door charge, sir. May one of our hostesses escort you to our newly opened Purgatory Plaza?

  46. bowels, for pete’s sake. We haven’t had bowls since our last peccant monk was given his final haircut.

  47. Well, what I suspect is actually PR from someone who’s really thinking something else that he won’t tell me. The impeccable fluency of TV and radio spokesliars may have ruined me forever for seamless surfaces of speech.

  48. Yeah, sleek plausibility, you wanna watch out for that. But the battle is half-won just from being able to recognize it.

  49. ‘erm’ is a British non-rhotic spelling of ‘um’
    Thank heaven. I feel much better now. But I wonder why they would spell it like that if (as I seem to remember AJP saying in a thread a few days ago) the r does not change the sound of the vowel in non-rhotic speech. If some words with silent letters like maybe “listen” or “salmon” (just guessing about the specifics) are spelled that way because once upon a time the letters were really pronounced, maybe once people somewhere really did say “erm” rhotically.

  50. The impeccable fluency of TV and radio spokesliars
    Um, they are impossibly fluent because they are reading. Like, from a teleprompter. Often they do not even understand what they are reading. But they always have good hair.

  51. I doubt that radio announcers always have good hair.
    I would think that a non-rhotic “erm” sounds a little different from an “um”. More English, like.

  52. Yes, erm and um are very different in non-rhotic BBC England. Um is pronounced to rhyme with hum, whereas erm rhymes with germ.

  53. … Actually, erm is more often almost like ’em, in “Give ’em hell”.

  54. David Marjanović says

    In RP, er is this thing when stressed, and this or that one when unstressed. Stressed u is different from all these: it’s closer to this, though lower for most and farther in front for many.

  55. Now that we’ve got audio files and the internet, I suggest that this old-fogey marks-on-paper notation for phones (phonemes ?) be discarded. It’s extremely ineffective when compared to real, audible sounds.
    The new systematics could be called “notesation”, or “acoution”.
    All those IPA-character-sets-on-different-computers nightmares would fly out the window as well. There are already enough goddamn character sets for languages as it is. We no longer need another, articifial one called IPA to do what none of the natural language ones does adequately.
    We would be using another one of our senses, instead of fixating on the visual and imagining everything else in out heads.
    Down with the tyranny of the eyeball!

  56. I was thinking the same when i read it, Grumbly, but then I decided I wouldn’t think it if I’d actually taken the trouble to learn to read IPA. It’s not like everyone’s being forced to learn it and we might as well say let’s dispense with the books now that we can listen to Martin Jarvis reading “Just William” on our ipods*.
    *He’s as good as the book itself.

  57. Notation allows us to abstract (to varying degrees) over the continuous variability of speech, just as line drawings in illustrated dictionaries work better than photographs. A photograph can only be of some specific Fido or other, whereas what we want for dog is a drawing that abstracts over the variable features of dogs.

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