Talk with your mouth full: the literary game of mouth-filled speech

In 2011 a reader wrote to linguist David Crystal with an interesting question. Having tried recently to brush their teeth and talk at the same time, they wondered how such ‘approximations of real words’ might factor into language – and whether authors had ever exploited this form of speech ‘for inventive literary purposes’.

In his post on what he calls ‘mouth-filled speech’, Crystal looked at phonetics, politeness, etiquette, risks, and frequency (‘really rather common’), but found scant examples in literature or language corpora. My intention here is to share a few from books I’ve read in the meantime – mostly novels but one non-fiction.

We may talk with all sorts of things in our mouth, such as food, pens, pins, fingers (our own or other people’s), tongues (just other people’s), dentist’s instruments, gum shields, gags, and of course toothbrushes. Crystal lists various other possibilities.

Transcribed, the utterance may be transparent or heavily obscured, depending on the writer’s strategy and skill in treating the phenomenon. Context can help readers infer the muddled words, or the author may convey it through repetition. When there’s no narrative reason to have characters speak unclearly, it can be a nod to realism or verisimilitude or perhaps serve as a linguistic game or challenge.

Here, then, are some instances of mouth-filled speech. Links point to previous posts on the books cited.

1. Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. ‘Hum speech’, Everett writes, is one of five communication channels in the Pirahã language, ‘each having a unique cultural function’: whistle speech, hum speech, musical speech, yell speech, and normal speech:

Hum speech can ‘say’ anything that can be said with consonants and vowels. But also like the other channels, it has a specific set of functions. Hum speech is used to disguise either what one is saying or one’s identity. It does this because even for a native Pirahã who is not paying close attention, it is hard to follow. And hum speech is conducted at very low volume. So it is also used for privacy, like our whispering. . . . Hum speech is also used to talk when one’s mouth is full. Finally, it is frequently used by mothers when talking to their children.

2. Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Mantel gives the reader a little help after the initial cryptic utterance.

‘Mandy—’ Alison began.

Mandy waved a hand. ’Nugh about it,’ she said, her mouth full of muesli. ’Id nig. Nobbel self.’

’But I do blame myself,’ Al insisted.

3. Jeff Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. The author’s enjoyment of the device is obvious:

Vince took a big bite of cinnamon roll. His lips gleamed with frosting as he slowly chewed. ‘Mmmpp,’ he said, and swallowed. ‘Are we feeling left out?’

‘If we means Deborah, yes we are,’ I said. ‘I told her I’d take a look at the file for her.’

‘Wulf,’ he said, mouth full of pastry, ‘merf pluddy uh bud is nime.’

‘Forgive me, master,’ I said. ‘Your language is strange to me.’

He chewed and swallowed. ‘I said, at least there’s plenty of blood this time. But you’re still a wallflower. Bradley got the call for this one.’

‘Can I see the file?’

He took a bite. ‘Ee waf awife—’

‘Very true, I’m sure. And in English?’

Vince swallowed. ‘I said, he was still alive when his leg came off.’

‘Human beings are so resilient, aren’t they?’

Vince stuck the whole pastry in his mouth and picked up the file, holding it out to me and taking a large bite of the roll at the same time. I grabbed the folder.

‘I’ve got to go,’ I said. ‘Before you try to talk again.’

4. Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English. The narrator, Harrison, is an 11-year-old boy who has emigrated from Ghana to England. His older sister Lydia’s friend, Miquita, is teaching him how to kiss, under Lydia’s supervision. He doesn’t like Miquita, but he wants to be ready for when his girlfriend wants a kiss:

Then she kissed me right on the lips. It was quite soft. It was even not too bad until I felt her tongue go in.

Me: ‘Nnngggtngg, yudiingsaanythnnngabouutnng!’

Miquita stopped. I got my breath back.

Miquita: ‘What was that?’

Me: ‘You didn’t say anything about tongues!’

Miquita: ‘But everyone likes the tongue. You gotta learn the best way or there’s no point. Just go with it.’

[…]

Her lips kept sucking, her breath kept blowing hot up my nose. I couldn’t even stop it. I don’t even like cherry. My belly felt sick like the sea.

Me: ‘Stoppih! Lyda, helllpe! Gehhheroff!’

Lydia: ‘He’s had enough. He keeps holding his breath.’

Zadie Smith, White Teeth: book cover of Penguin edition, with large white text on red, light green, and blue background panels.5. Zadie Smith, White Teeth. Smith doesn’t explain the food-blocked utterance, but I’m fairly sure mu’rer’s is ‘mother’s’. Miyat is ‘Millat’, another character:

‘Joyce, Marcus,’ appealed Joshua, looking for an external judgement. ‘Tell him.’

Marcus popped a great wedge of cheese in his mouth and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m afwaid Miyat’s oar mu’rer’s jurishdicshun.’

6. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga, vol. 1. Delicate readers should skip this one. Alana has just given birth, and her partner, Marko, is biting the umbilical cord (they are on the run and cannot avail of proper facilities). The dialogue is in speech bubbles, rendered below in quotation marks:

Alana: ‘Marko! What the hell are you doing?!’

Marko: ‘Cuhhing thu mbilical?’

7. Ali Smith, How to Be Both. George visits her mother in hospital. Her mother’s speech is impaired – there’s no mention of tubes in her mouth, but it’s possible given the context. This one is unusual in that the corrupted text comes after discussion of it:

George had seen her contorted in the hospital bed. Her skin had changed colour and was covered in weals. She could hardly speak. What she did say, in the last part of whatever was happening to her and before they put George outside the door to wait in the corridor, was that she was a book, I’m an open book, she said. Though it was also equally possible that what she’d said was that she was an unopen book.

I a a u opn ook.

8. Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls. This thriller contains several examples, whose main distinct feature is the absence of vowels. In the first, a man in hospital (in 1932) has just had his jaw wired and is being attended to by a nurse:

Five dollars a night gets you treated like an emperor in the palace of the sick.

‘Mmmmnghff,’ Harper says, gesturing impatiently at the morphine in its glass vial on the tray beside the bed, which has been inclined forty-five degrees so he can sit up.

‘Murdered in the night,’ she says in a thrilled stage whisper, pushing the rubber tube down his throat between the wires holding his teeth together, screwed right into his jaw so it will be impossible to shave.

‘Nggghkk.’

‘Oh, don’t whine. You’re lucky it’s only dislocated.’

Later:

At least the pain is gone, drowned in a morphine glaze. But the goddamn nurse is still fussing around his bed, unnecessarily as far as he can tell. He can’t figure out why she is hanging around. He wishes she would go away. He gestures tiredly at her. ‘Wht?’

‘Just making sure you’re all settled.’

A few days after this, he attends a funeral:

He hangs at the back, the lone white man present. When someone asks him, inevitably, why he is here, he mutters around the wiring, ‘Knw hrr,’ and the fools rush to fill in the gaps themselves.

Later again, his jaw still wired, he picks up a sketch that a street artist has just crumpled and thrown away:

‘Yw drppd ths.’

‘Yes. Thank you,’ she says, and then half gets to her feet.

In the final example, a character has a tennis ball forced into her mouth:

‘Don’t,’ she manages. It comes out ‘Ownt’.

If writing mouth-filled speech is a game for authors, spotting examples has become a fun exercise for this reader. I’ll add to this post when I come across others. (Apparently Crystal’s subsequent book Sounds Appealing features some.) If you know of any, or have thoughts about it as a literary device or as a paralinguistic phenomenon, let me know.

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14 Responses to Talk with your mouth full: the literary game of mouth-filled speech

  1. John Cowan says:

    Here’s Peter Wimsey in the dentist’s chair:

    “A — ow — oo — oo — uh — ihi — uh?” inquired Wimsey naturally enough.

    “How do I come into it?” said Mr. Lamplough, who from long experience was expert in the interpretation of mumblings.

    So this is the reverse of the man with his jaw wired shut, who uses only consonants; Wimsey, with his mouth forced open, uses only vowels.

    A few years ago, I had to have dental work on both sides, and when I left, I investigated how I talked with my mouth numb. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down my observations, and I don’t remember them now.

  2. Carol Saller says:

    Isn’t anyone else disgusted by this kind of thing? I once wrote about the proliferation of fictional characters I run across shoving food into their mouths. Who over the age of 13 does that? No one I know.

    Anyway, I don’t recall whether any of these characters try to speak while incapacitated, but I do cite the page numbers, so you can check if you like:

    http://www.subversivecopyeditor.com/blog/2011/08/food-shoving-in-fiction-art-or-life.html

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an amusing collection of questionable table manners, Carol! I’m not at all disgusted by the descriptions, though I do think less ‘shoving’ and ‘stuffing’ would be welcome if only for stylistic variety. I guess writers turn to those verbs because they’re more action-oriented than ‘eat’ and have become a staple; they’re probably unaware they may repulse some readers.

      It reminds of how Mr Fox eats in Wes Anderson’s film: a wonderful reminder of his animal nature, if you can overlook the sexist stereotypes:

  3. Except for the comment by John Cowan, I do not find the examples of mouth-full (or -filled) speech to be good approximations. I don’t know if I should be lauded for my attempts to duplicate, or eye-rolled for the same, but I tried them myself, WITH a pen in my mouth, WITH a toothbrush in my mouth, and…let’s just stop there. I even went down the alphabet (object in mouth) to see which letters could be pronounced properly (for example, you cannot pronounce a D or a P if you can’t move your tongue or lips, as at the dentist). So either more actual research is needed to come up with better approximations of mumbles-to-text (appropriate for whatever object is obstructing speech, whether dental guard, tennis ball or hatpin–and all cause different results), or authors should not bother the attempt IMhO.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Trying to duplicate the examples is definitely to be lauded. I found some of them more realistic or plausible than others. Fully accurate transcriptions would probably render some of the utterances unintelligible, so a reasonable compromise may have been necessary. (Or in some cases more research, as you say.) There’s also the fact that different speakers, with different mouth shapes and sizes, will lead to considerable differences when trying to speak the same mouth-filled words.

  4. The Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic Preacher (currently being adapted for TV) had a character called Arseface, a teenager whose worship of Kurt Cobain went all the way up to attempting to blow his own brains out, but missing. It left him with the facial disfigurement indicated by his nickname, and massively impaired speech, which Ennis transcribes faithfully with subtitles. But halfway through the story, as the character of Arseface becomes more sympathetic, Ennis quietly drops the subtitles and makes us do the work for ourselves.

    The best scene involving Arseface has him getting on stage with a bar band, putting his hands behind his back, singing the following – “Tuhduh, uh guhyuh buhyuh duh thuh thuh guhyuh thuhyuh buhguh yuh / Suhmuh, yuh shuyuh buh nuh rulluh whuh yuh guhyuh duh / Uh cuh buhluv uh *uyuhbuhyuh* fuh uh wuhyuh duh abuh yuh nuh” – and leaving you to work out that two of the words in the second line are the wrong way round.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s brilliant, Spank. Somehow I never got around to Preacher. For all that song’s ubiquity (and I was never much of a fan) I imagine that as the years go by, Ennis’s rendition will be a lot more recognisable to some people than to others, depending on age, geography, and even social circles and musical tastes. For anyone reading this and none the wiser, you can listen along here.

  5. Neal says:

    J. K. Rowling does it by adding the adverb “thickly” to the relevant attribution.

    • I think that’s sufficient for everyone to comprehend. I find attempts to approximate mouth-full speech falling very short, and really for what? Suffice to say the person mumbled [thickly or otherwise] with their mouth full (or occupied). OK, got it. Some readers have adequate imaginations and life experience to get the picture without being subjected to nonsensical strings of consonants, vowels, or both. And yeah, it can be a bit gross, I guess.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an economical alternative. A Google Books search for the phrase ‘said thickly’ shows how frequent it is, though applied less often to mouth-filled speech than to some other type, such as when the speaker is emotional or disoriented.

  6. Stan Carey says:

    An example from Twitter:

    • That is not a valid approximation. You need tongue near teeth, and lips almost closed, to get an S sound. And if he can manage the second C sound in Connecticut, why can’t he manage the first one? And how can he pronounce an F with his mouth open? Bah. Try it yourself. Hold your teeth apart as if you were at the dentist, using your fingers if necessary, and you’ll see.

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