October 13, 2007

Regional speech rates

In a recent post, Arnold Zwicky mentioned that

A NPR Morning Edition story this morning by Melanie Peebles about gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal speaking in the little town of Gramercy, Louisiana, refers to the "locals, who tend to draw out vowels in a speech pattern born of front-porch sitting".

Arnold quoted Charlie Doyle's ironic retort that "northerners talk fast because they sit uncomfortably on those little stoops", and noted that "non-linguists tend to hold to a folk belief that differences between varieties, including geographical and social dialects, have a deep explanation"

There's something else going on here, too, which is that people hear what they expect to hear -- patterns that correspond to their stereotypes, but may not exist as mere behavioral facts.

There are two different stereotypes at work (or play) in Arnold's example -- rural people talk slow compared to city people, and southerners talk slow compared to northerners. Put it all together, and you've got some seriously lazy-mouthed southern hicks.

Or maybe not.

For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I did a quick scan of time-aligned transcripts from a published speech corpus, which I had previously used to compare male and female talkativeness and speech rates.

In one section of this corpus, there were 2,329 speakers recorded in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia -- I took these as "southern" speakers. There were 2,397 from New York and Pennsylvania -- I took these as "northern" speakers.

The mean speaking rate of the "southern" speakers was 173.9 words per minute.

The mean speaking rate of the "northern" speakers was 173.5 words per minute.

In case you think that there might be some crucial information hiding in the rest of distribution, here's a comparison of the percentiles:

If we look at individual states, we find that the 185 people recorded in my home state of Connecticut averaged 174.9 wpm, beating the 107 slow-talking folk from Alabama, who averaged a mere 170.0. However, the 88 citizens of Louisiana who were represented in this collection crossed the wire at a blistering average of 178.1 wpm -- and this was in 2003, way before Katrina washed away their front porches.

Seriously, stereotypes aside, there's no indication of any meaningful group differences in any of this stuff. I haven't seen any credible measurements from other sources suggesting a different answer, either. Now maybe the differences come out in different sorts of interactions, or with different ways of calculating speech rate, or at a different phase of the moon -- I don't know. (If you have some evidence about this, please let me know.)

Meanwhile, pending any evidence to the contrary, I'm putting the slow-talking southern hicks into the same category of mythology as the gabby women.

But just to show that I'm a regular guy, I'll join in the ethnic-stereotyping fun with an anecdote and a joke.

These don't exactly deal with speech rate, but they do address the idea that some individuals or groups might be in a bigger hurry than others.

First the (true) story. Once I was in a grocery store in Austin, TX, waiting in the checkout line. At the front of the line, an elderly woman who had bought a quart of milk was engaged in a long, long conversation with the checkout clerk. I missed the beginning of it, and couldn't hear it very clearly anyhow, but it was something about her nephew, and some neighbor's dog, and someone taking a trip, and her latest medical procedures. It went on for what seemed like hours -- I suppose it must have been ten or fifteen minutes -- and I was tired, and annoyed at having to wait in line for this.

After the old lady finally toddled out, the next woman in line asked a question that perfectly expressed my exasperation: "What was *that* all about?" But she was innocent of irony. The clerk responded "well, you won't believe this, but ..." and they went through the whole thing again, with enthusiastic footnotes and commentary, for another fifteen minutes.

Now the joke. A guy from the city is taking a Sunday drive in the country. As he passes an orchard, he sees a farmer standing under an apple tree near the road, holding up a small pig who is eating apples off the tree. Amazed, he pulls over, gets out, and asks the farmer what in the world he's doing.

The farmer says "well, Petunia here can't reach the apples by herself, so I'm giving her a little help."

The city slicker can't believe what he's hearing. "Isn't that an amazing waste of time?"

The farmer responds, puzzled: "What's time to a pig?"

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 13, 2007 07:54 AM