December 20, 2005

Trembling to be wrong

What do you call it when someone repeats a short phrase-initial word over and over again, like "a- a- a safe haven for Al Qaeda"? Stuttering?

Not according to Peter Howell, "Assessment of Some Contemporary Theories of Stuttering that Apply to Spontaneous Speech", Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, vol. 31, pp. 122-139, 2004, who writes that

Failures in the normal mode of interaction between the [planning] and [execution] processes can lead to fluency failures when plans are too late in being supplied to the motor system. Generically, “fluency failure” arises whenever there is this underlying problem but ... there are two distinct types of responses available to the speaker in these circumstances. These are (a) whole function word repetition and hesitation (referred to here as disfluency), and (b) problems on parts of content words (a feature mainly seen in persistent stuttering).

Howell points out that this way of thinking makes sense of the fact that phrase-initial function words are often repeated, while phrase-final ones rarely are:

... If there is a sequence of simple words followed by a complex one, planning and execution of the simple words will both be rapid. At conjunction points, during the short time that the last simple word is being executed, the complex word that follows needs to be planned. The short execution time only allows a short planning time, but the complex word requires a long planning time. There will thus be an increased chance of fluency failure at this point. ...

For example, "we confirmed it" is much more likely to become "we- we confirmed it" than "we confirmed it- it."

Howell also suggests that "function word repetition and hesitation", although types of disfluency, "are associated with fluent speech control", and are both commoner and less disruptive of normal communication than stuttering is.

Indeed, disfluency of this sort is common even in the spontaneous or semi-scripted speech of professional "talking heads". For example, in Jim Leher's 12/16/2005 interview of George W. Bush, one of Lehrer's questions begins [ 20:16, audio]

The [pause] public opinion polls show that you are losing ((in-)) the- the confidence of the American people, in the way you're [pause] been conducting the war. Do you think ...

There are two pauses and one function-word repetition, each after a phrase-initial specifier. This is consistent with Howell's general approach, but several interesting aspects of the distribution of such disfluencies remain to be accounted for.

For instance, it's not entirely plausible that Lehrer is having trouble thinking of public as the second word in a question about "public opinion polls", nor does it seem likely that he needs extra time to devise its motor plan. Perhaps this pause is really staged for effect, to emphasize the noun phrase that follows by setting it off with an initial silence; or perhaps the whole phrase is queued up and ready to go, but there's a genuine difficulty in producing public while continuing to inhibit polls for a little while longer.

The pause after you're seems to reflect a genuine planning glitch, in which "you're conducting" and "you've been conducting" are in competition, and what emerges is a blend of the two. This is the kind of commonplace production error that (unfairly in my opinion) sometimes makes it into Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms column in Slate.

The Lehrer quote brings up another question for which I don't think anyone has a good answer at present: why do some "fluency failures" result in repetitions, while others result in silent pauses or "filled pauses" (e.g. uh and um)? There's been some interesting research (by Herb Clark, Jean Fox Tree and others, referenced here, here and here) suggesting that filled pauses and some other speech-production variants act in many ways rather like ordinary lexical items.

One common-sense factor that hasn't been featured in such research is stress. Not lexical or prosodic stress, but psychological stress, and in particular the stress associated with intense worry about saying the wrong thing. It's a commonplace of folk psychology that the response to being asked an embarassing question, or being caught in an apparent contradiction, is to sweat and stammer. Certainly politicians seem to experience higher-than-normal rates of disfluency when they're asked a question that requires them to navigate a narrow rhetorical passage between the Scylla of truth and the Charybdis of political constraint. As Byron wrote about a court poet,

He toils through all, still trembling to be wrong:
For fear some noble thoughts, like heavenly rebels,
Should rise up in high treason to his brain,
He sings, as the Athenian spoke, with pebbles
In's mouth, lest Truth should stammer through his strain.

I cited some examples of this effect in one of Bill Clinton's town meetings.

OK, having established that all God's children are often disfluent, and having put this fact in psycholinguistic and rhetorical context, I can safely expose the few of you who are still reading this to a sample of the truly spectacular specimens of initial-repetition disfluency on George W. Bush's side of the 12/16/2005 interview with Jim Lehrer:

[1:29, audio] I- I- we- we- we- we don't talk about sources and methods

[8:43.7, audio] At one point in time, if- if I'm not mistaken, looked like they- the- the- the- the- the- democracy was in the balance

[10:11.6, audio] so that political people can use police forces to [pause] seek retribution uh in i- i- i- in society

[11:26.3, audio] and- uh and- and- look we- we- and- and- and- by the way

[12:00.4, audio] Yeah, it's- it's- it's- the biggest priority is winning.

[17:53, audio] that's what- that's- that's what people- I think- I've always known that ...

[21:46.5, audio] He ju- I- I- I- I'm worried about a theocracy. [Lehrer says "yeah" three times in the background]

[24:42, audio] Yeah. It's a- it's a- it's a- it's a- it's b- belief in the system,

[26:05, audio] I- I- I- and- I- dealing with John McCain is not ((a-)) [pause] a- a reluctant adventure for me, I enjoy it.

If you look at that contexts of those passages, I think you can sense a connection between the degree of stress induced by the topic and the amount of disfluency. Unfortunately, I can't specify any political stress-o-meter that would let us quantify this in a non-circular way.

In the same interview, there are several examples of a rather different kind of phrase-initial disfluency, which for want of a more technical term might be called "muttering". For example:

[20:27.1, audio] {breath} ((I've be- oh look I mean heh)) {breath} uh

And finally, a bravura display of hesitations, repetitions and corrections, ending with a lovely example of ironic overarticulation:

[19:25.9, audio]

One thing Charles Duelfer did find --
is- he's the in-
uh the i- i-
the guy went in to look for weapons,
the- the uh-
weapons inspector inspector {heh}

It's probably not an accident that the British games we Americans have borrowed don't include Just a Minute.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2005 06:48 AM