In this second instalment of the Intelligibility Series, we’re going to look at what Intelligibility isn’t. Of course, we’re talking about mumbling, which is defined as “to say something indistinctly or quietly, to mutter something under one’s breath.” What I’d like you to do today is experiment with mumbling in your own private way. Take a piece of text that you have memorized, and mumble your way through it. Once you’ve done that, you can come back here and we’ll discuss what’s going on. Don’t have anything memorized? That’s ok — why not read some poetry?
You back? OK. So let’s think about what happened. Here’s what people typically report happens when they mumble. Maybe some of these occurred for you?
- monotone speech (talking on one pitch, perhaps dropping at the end of phrases)
- low pitch, probably in the “basement” of your range
- slow pace, even rate
- glottal fry, especially at ends of phrases, but possibly throughout
- reduced movement of articulators, particularly the jaw and tongue
- increased tension in articulators
- “lazy” speech, whatever that means for you
- eliding of one word into another
- using contractions rather than full versions of words, like “gotta” for “got to”, etc.
- reduced facial vibration (aka resonance), with the sound trapped in the throat
- vowels not very distinct from one another (as if they were all approaching the centre of the mouth, like vowel schwa [ə])
- devoicing at the ends of words or phrases, turning voiced consonants into voiceless ones
If you found other features of your mumbling you’d care to share, why not make a comment below?
Mumbling is typically a reduction of voice and speech energy. When we explore it as an affectation, we tend to go all out and do every possible variable that can lead to the qualities we think of as mumbling. But what if you went back to your text and did each of those bullet points individually, and not all at once? This all-at-once quality tends to make your mumbling completely unexpressive. But what if you could mumble and still do things like emphasize key/operative words? Why not try that now.
By mumbling our way through the text we’ve essentially turned all the dials on our speech Mixing Board down to 1 (or maybe even zero). We want to explore turning only one feature down at a time, and feel its effects. Taken one at a time, many of these aspects of mumbling can be see as possibly beneficial, if used at the right time, in the right place, or as a means of emphasis. The only extreme ones that really compromise intelligibility are the reduced movement and tension of articulators, and indistinct vowels. So we have three features we really need to explore in greater depth in our next exploration: what impact do indistinct vowels, habitual tension, and immobility of articulators have on your speech?