July 29, 2004

Calling Samuel Beckett

At the gym this evening, I didn't bring my mp3 player, thinking it would be a good chance to think. Think again. The most salient sound in the fitness room, cutting through the techno-musak and the thud of feet on the treadmills, was the young woman four machines over talking on her cell phone. She was there when I started, and until she left 25 minutes later, cell phone cradled against her ear, I could hear every word she said. But that wasn't the unusual part. The thing is -- and I swear this is true -- the only contentful noun stem that she uttered during the entire conversation was weather.

The first thing that I heard her say was

So what's the weather there?

OK, fair enough. After a brief silence, she continued

Well, go check weather.com.

Good idea. Then she emitted a series of four equally spaced versions of yeah, each different:

Yeah. [low falling intonation = "I get it"]

Yeah? [high rising intonation = "Really?"]

Yeah?!! [empatic rise-fall intonation = "yes of course, you stupid idiot!"]

Yeah... [mid level intonation, pharyngealized voice quality = "well, I guess so, but..."]

After a brief pause, she said

Ask him what the weather is like.

Curiously, weather was focused, as if she'd just been talking about other things. She then added

Well, I'd like to know about the weather.

I had figured that out already, and so had everyone else in the fitness room, but apparently the party at the other end of the line was having some trouble grasping the concept. So she repeated

What's the weather there now?

A scattering of back-channel responses intervened:



Uh huh...


And then she returned, without any indication of impatience, to her theme:

And how's the weather?

I'll spare you the transcript of the next 23 minutes.

Her accent was generic educated non-southern American, maybe with a touch of California. Her voice struck me as piercing and nasal, but it's a little hard to separate form from content in judging voice quality: "nasal" is often just a phonetic re-interpretation of "annoying".

It's possible to fill in the context, and the other side of her conversation, in a way that redeems this individual from idiocy, if not from rudeness. Maybe she was talking with a whole series of family members, and wanted some independent judgments; maybe she was worried about her rose bushes and her interlocutor only wanted to talk about his tennis elbow; who knows? The trouble with public phone conversations is that you can't stop yourself from trying to fill in the other side, at least half consciously. In my opinion, and Mark Twain's opinion too, and also according to some experiments, this makes such half-conversations seem much louder, more salient (and more annoying) than they otherwise would be.

The trouble with this particular conversation was that it kept getting harder and harder to make sense of it. This was not because it was made up of complex phrases. Nor was it because its phrases were especially ambiguous or contentless -- in fact, a conversation made up of nothing but versions of "yeah" and "OK" would have been less gripping, I think. It was her endless repetition of queries about the weather, performed in an invariant manner as if each was the first, that made this such a special experience.

Oh, as she walked out the door, 25 minutes later, she did introduce a new morpheme:

Well, is it raining?


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2004 09:54 PM