Rhythmic Silences

* Nai Ding and Hongjian He, ‘Rhythm of Silence’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 82-4.
* S.J. Kayser et al., ‘Irregular Speech Rate Dissociates Auditory Cortical Entrainment, Evoked Responses, and Frontal Alpha’, Journal of Neuroscience, 35 (2015), 14691-701.

Did I mention that I find turn-taking interesting, when it’s talked about by scientists and linguists, and when it’s practised by characters in plays? I definitely did here, and you’ll find further links in that post. So, yes, I am drawn to turn-taking. It is a Siren. Maybe it’s because I worry about it, quite frequently stopping myself and saying to students ‘were you about to say something?’. Maybe everyone worries about it.
      Anyway, Nai Ding and Hongjian He have added silence to the rhythmic mix in a short essay in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. They are particularly inspired by the experiments published in Kayser et al., in which altering silence intervals unsettled listeners’ ability to understand speech. Rhythm and ‘predictive processes’ seem to need some gaps to work properly. They’re really talking about gaps between and within words, rather than between statements (which would be more akin to the turn-taking I’ve written about before).
      There is more to know about these functional silences. Their durations are not random: it seems they are defined by the ‘biomechanical properties of the human articulators’ and the ‘neurodynamical properties of the human brain’. It’s not easy to disentangle the needs of the sound-maker and the sound-receiver. They have evolved together, after all. They also vary according to the ‘hierarchical prosodic structure of speech’. So we are used to smaller gaps after, say, syllables in the middle of routine words, than we are after significant syllables in key nouns in key rhetorical positions.
      There are, of course, many dramatic instances where the silence between speeches are manipulated. The dramatic pause is a characteristic of some writers (Pinter, Beckett) who find other ways of disrupting comfort and/or confidence in human speech-interactions.
      And there must be somewhere to go with these smaller silences: some writers (like James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, maybe) coin words, mingle syllables, thus varying from where we might think a word is supposed to end. What bidimetoloves sinduced by what tegotetabsolvers. Disrupted comprehension, which worried the scientists, is only the beginning of the pleasure and pain of Finnegans Wake, which simply isn’t going to yield to an alert reader on anything like first run through. But it might draw out some characteristics of our need for silence in word-rhythm.

Why this one? Well it’s the way that the steadily filling helmet cuts off the singer without cutting off the song. The word after the mouth stops: silence. One thing that’s special about this video is that Thom Yorke found it very difficult to hold his breath, and (I saw a superb Making Of film once) the successful take came after despairing failure. His smile of triumph and the surge of relief that comes when he gets it right, exciting even if you don’t know the background, were well earned.

And this one? Well, I thought I was the only person who played ‘No Surprises’ on the ukulele. And it has a very clever video that does something quite different with the immersion, with the outcome both lighter and darker.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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