Saturday, October 09, 2004


Another blog -- one devoted to cinema, apparently -- offered a Promptergate perspective so intriguing that I would like to relay the main points here:
Lately the effect seems more pronounced. Bush speaks entire sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, with serial points and subordinate clauses, that are mysteriously punctuated with unnaturally long pauses, as if he's waiting for the next prompt to come through an earpiece. Or he'll pause for a protracted moment and then suddenly blurt out a few more words -- big words, sometimes. He looks abstracted, disengaged from his own language, almost like a simultaneous translator (if you can imagine Bush as a simultaneous translator). Maybe he's just learned his lines by heart, since he says the same things over and over every day. But there's a weird effect of delay in his delivery, like a bad actor's. And how is it that he can suddenly speak English?

I asked a language scientist who studies dyslexia what he thought of my notion. He told me that having a speaker reproduce phrases fed through an earpiece is a much-used experimental device called "shadowing." Contrary to what I assumed, that it would be hard to speak with someone else's voice murmuring in your ear, the scientist said it's easy; it's only difficult if it's your own voice that you're hearing.
"Shadowing" (the simultaneous or near-simultaneous repetition of a word or phrase) has been much discussed in the technical literature of linguistics; see, for example, here and here and here. One of the findings of shadowing experiments is that "listeners need to hear only 200-250 ms of a word to repeat it." I imagine this process would lead to "false positives" -- for example, a listener may guess that the word is "botanical" when it is actually "botulism." This may explain some of Bush's more amusing malapropisms.

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