On Drunk Speech


By Jessica Love

May 24, 2012


On this, the eve of my bachelorette party, it is time to consider drunk speech.

First there are the gross effects. I do not refer to vomiting, nor to the conviction—released from the fragile confines of sobriety—that now’s a brilliant time to tell the joke about the boy goat and the girl goat. These can be pressing concerns, but here gross means “at the level of the sentence” and mainly refers to an impaired ability to efficiently access vocabulary. Not just the rare or difficult words that are usually most affected by experimental manipulations, but, according to a 1988 Psychopharmacology paper, all words. This has led some researchers to argue that lexical access is impaired not because we’ve forgotten what any of the words mean, but because we’re slower at making decisions about them. That is, perhaps our (in)ability to unconsciously decide such things as How confident am I that this word is the right one? is what’s to blame. I’m not sure how much I buy this explanation, but drunk speech is brimming with false starts and disfluencies. Gross indeed.

Just slightly more subtle are the motor movement difficulties experienced by the intoxicated. A 1974 study reports that fine motor movements such as the placement of the tip of the tongue are impaired after 10 ounces of 86 proof bourbon. In other words, after nearly seven shots (should your tolerance be identical to that of a select group of 1974 participants), your “l”s shifts to “r”s and your “s”s to “sh”s. (Indeed, when linguists Keith Johnson, David Pisoni, and Robert Bernaki analyzed voice recordings from the Exxon Valdez’s captain before and after the accident to determine if alcohol was involved,  the captain’s lack of “sh”-ing may have gotten him off the hook.)

When drinking, we irritate our vocal folds. As a consequence, the pitch of our voice lowers and becomes more variable. The irritant could certainly be the alcohol, but our tendency to speak louder while under the influence could also be to blame. Drunk speech is slow, too. Some researchers have suggested that we slow our speech in an effort to counteract all that motor movement difficulty. Because certain sounds are nonetheless more difficult than others to produce, however, the net effect of uniform slowing may not be all that helpful: we still sound drunk, only now we give sober people longer to notice.

Have I mentioned anything that would surprise the average consumer of alcohol?  Probably not. All things considered, surprisingly little is known about the effects of alcohol consumption on speech (hence the ages of the studies I’ve reviewed). At least in part, this is because conducting a university-condoned alcohol study is a lot like hosting an atheist club-sponsored Bible giveaway, plus a whole lot more paperwork. If you want to get people loaded in the psych building, you’ve got a lot of forms to fill out. Exactly how much alcohol will you give your participants? How long must they stay under your observation? And, of course, how will you get them home?

It’s unfortunate that we don’t know more about drunk speech, though, because drinking is very much a social activity, and language is about as social a tool as we humans have. How social is drinking? For one thing, it is susceptible to mimicry. We tend to unconsciously mimic others when we want them to like us (and, some studies suggest, it works). So we’ll often match our drinking partners sip for sip; indeed, one study has even found evidence that we mimic the drinking behavior of actors on the screen. No wonder Mad Men has caught on so.

But do we mimic more when drunk? Alcohol is well-known to reduce our inhibitions or, at the very least, distract ourselves from them. If we were more likely to mimic others when drinking, mimicry wouldn’t be a behavior we adopted so much as a default behavior—a sort of priming—that we sometimes have the resources to inhibit.

Speech is an ideal place to test this hypothesis. If, after putting down a few, we were more likely to pattern our dialect, word choice, or sentence structure after our husband-to-be’s, the implications would go beyond linguistics. And really, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that study?


Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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