09 February 2007

Is that a...penis in your pocket?

Here's an interesting paper on disfluency and a quick rundown by Chris at the Mixing Memory blog.

Everyday speech is littered with disfluency, often correlated with the production of less predictable words (e.g., Beattie & Butterworth, 1979). But what are the effects of disfluency on listeners? In an ERP experiment which compared fluent to disfluent utterances, we established an N400 effect for unpredictable compared to predictable words. This effect, reflecting the difference in ease of integrating words into their contexts, was reduced in cases where the target words were preceded by a hesitation marked by the word er. Moreover, a subsequent recognition memory test showed that words preceded by disfluency were more likely to be remembered. The study demonstrates that hesitation affects the way in which listeners process spoken language, and that these changes are associated with longer-term consequences for the representation of the message.
Chris closes his summary by wondering about the effects and role of disfluency in comedy, which is exactly what I was thinking while reading about the study. I can think of three ways this comes into play in comic delivery.
  1. Exaggerating disfluency before an unpredictable word. This is the most common usage, where an unexpected twist comes at the end of the joke. An extended pause lets the clever listener know something is coming.
  2. The opposite of above, specifically avoiding disfluency before an unpredictable word. This is a stylistic choice which works well for deadpan comics. The listener is always running 400ms behind the comedian, but if she's good, the delayed laughter doesn't effect her setup of the subsequent joke.
  3. Intentionally using disfluency before predictable words. Pausing or "um"-ing sets up the tension; the mundane word causes the release. This isn't good for a big laugh, but creates a little listener anxiety which can be exploited through repetition and then a quick switch. Think of this like a meta-variation on a normal joke's pattern, where the twist at the end - a full joke unto itself - also varies because of the odd deliveries that preceded it.