By Professor of English and English Education, Kennesaw State University
Pop culture abounds with examples of very fast talkers. There’s the Judy Grimes character played by Kristen Wiig on “Saturday Night Live,” or that guy from the 1980s who did commercials for Micro Machines and FedEx. Of course, there are also extremely slow talkers, like the sloth in “Zootopia” and the cartoon basset hound Droopy.
Real-life fast talkers are staples in some professions. Auctioneers and sportscasters are known for their rapid delivery, though the slower commentary in golf shows there is a range for different sports.
As professors of English who study linguistic variations, we know that how fast a person speaks is a complicated phenomenon. It depends on a range of factors, including the types of words used, the language spoken, regional differences, social variables and professional needs.
Different countries, different speeds
Speech rate refers to the speed at which a speaker verbalizes “connected discourse” – essentially anything more than a sentence. It is measured by counting segments of sound and the pauses in a specific time frame. Typically, these segments are counted as syllables. Remember clapping syllables in elementary school? SYL-LA-BLES.
Linguists have discovered that humans vary their speech rate within sentences across all languages. For example, most people slow their speech down before saying nouns. Researchers have also found that languages have different speech rates when speakers read aloud. French, Spanish and Japanese were shown to have high average speech rates – with close to eight syllables spoken per second. German, Vietnamese and Mandarin exhibited slower rates – with about five syllables per second. English was in the middle, with an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second.
There is also global variation within the dialects of a language. In English, for example, one study found that New Zealanders spoke the fastest, followed by British English speakers, then Americans and finally Australians.
Stereotypes don’t hold up
Many people have expectations and assumptions about different speech rates within English dialects. For example, there’s the often-observed “drawl” of those living in the U.S. South. The term drawl denotes a slower, drawn-out speaking pace. And, indeed, some research supports this perception. One study found that participants in western North Carolina spoke more slowly than participants in Wisconsin.
Other research has demonstrated that some Southerners may speak more slowly only in certain contexts – for example, they may pause more often when reading aloud. And certain elongated vowels in southern American dialects can also slow down the speech rate. This can be heard in the pronunciation of “nice” as something like “nahhce.”
Some people assume that all Southerners are slow talkers who exhibit these features. This is perhaps due, at least in part, to the perpetuation of stereotypes and caricatures in popular media, such as Cletus, the stereotyped hillbilly from “The Simpsons.”
But it’s important to recognize that language also varies within regions, including the U.S. South. For example, a study involving North Carolinians found that speakers in western and central North Carolina spoke more slowly than those in the state’s eastern and southern parts. And some North Carolinians spoke about as fast as Ohioans – suggesting the stereotype of the slow-talking Southerner doesn’t always hold up.
Age, gender and other variables
Sex and gender may also influence speech rates, although results have been conflicting here, too. Some research shows that men speak faster than women, while other studies find no significant difference in speech rate between genders.
The demographic variable that seems to have the most significant and consistent impact is age. We speak slowly when we are children, speed up in adolescence and speak our fastest in our 40s. Then we slow down again as we reach our 50s and 60s.
While geography, gender and age may affect speech rates in certain cases, context plays a role as well. For example, certain professions use oral formulaic traditions, meaning there’s a framework script when performing those jobs. An average person can speak about as fast as an auctioneer – 5.3 syllables per second – when saying something they’ve said many times before.
However, auctioneers use certain patterns of speech that make it seem like they speak incredibly quickly. They have few pauses in speech and repeat the same words frequently. They also use unfamiliar phrasings and rhythms, which makes listeners have to process what was said long after the auctioneer has moved on to the next topic. And auctioneers have a constant rate of articulation – meaning they rarely stop talking.
While recognizing differences in speech rates can help people to better understand linguistic, cultural and professional identities, it also has technological and other applications. Think of how computer scientists must program Alexa and Siri to both produce and recognize speech at different rates. Speaking more slowly can also improve listening comprehension for beginner and intermediate language learners.
Perhaps the most valuable takeaway when considering speech rate variation is the fact that linguistic perceptions don’t always match up with reality. This is a perspective we often emphasize in our own work because linguistic stereotypes can lead to assumptions about a person’s background.
Recent studies of perceptions of U.S. dialects confirm that, despite variation in speech rates within regions, people persist in labeling large regions of the South as “slow” and the North and Midwest as “fast.” Moreover, these evaluations are also typically associated with negative stereotypes. Slow talkers are often assumed to be less intelligent or competent than fast talkers, while very fast talkers can be seen as less truthful or kindhearted.
There is no inherent connection between the rate of speech and levels of intelligence, truthfulness or kindness. Language use differs for all sorts of reasons, and differences are not deficiencies.
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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Kennesaw State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
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