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.’
‘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.
‘Oh, don’t whine. You’re lucky it’s only dislocated.’
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.
9. A lovely example in the comic book Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and Dave McKean:
Scrumpf umpf umpfle rumpf mumpf?
I said, don’t apples taste great?
10. And one from The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson, and Vince Locke:
Here she is, my lord. The intruder. We have her safe.
Fhee fhed. Fhee wov wor fhifhter.
I’m afraid she IS my sister, Wyvern. Put her down.
The mouth-filled lines mean: ‘She said. She was your sister.’