Mumbling Isn’t a Sign of Laziness—It’s a Clever Data-Compression Trick – Facts So Romantic

Many of us have been taught that pronouncing vowels indistinctly and dropping consonants are symptoms of slovenly speech, if not outright disregard for the English language. The Irish playwright St. John Ervine viewed such habits as evidence that some speakers are “weaklings too languid and emasculated to speak their noble language with any vigor.” If that’s so, then we are swimming in a sea of linguistic wimpiness; Keith Johnson found that speakers relaxed or dropped sounds in more than 60 percent of words spoken in conversation. Happily, the science of mumbling offers a far less judgmental—and more captivating—account of our imperfectly crisp pronunciations.

Far from being a symptom of linguistic indifference or moral decay, dropping or reducing sounds displays an underlying logic similar to the data-compression schemes that are used to create MP3s and JPEGs. These algorithms trim down the space needed to digitally store sounds and images by throwing out information that is redundant or doesn’t add much to our perceptual experience—for example, tossing out data at sound frequencies we can’t hear, or not bothering to encode slight gradations of color that are hard to see. The idea is to keep only the information that has the greatest impact.

Mumbling—or…
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