Sick Speech

Photo: Andrew Filer

Andrew Filer CC BY-SA 2.0

I had tonsillitis last week. Throat maladies tend to endow one with a strange temporary “accent,” and this one was no different; the illness rendered my voice unusually nasal in this case. Such an affliction contrasts with typical head cold symptoms, which sometimes “denasalize” speech (for reasons I’ll get to). Still, when I first noticed that I was talking strangely, I didn’t take much notice. I was sick as a dog, after all.

Over a few days, however, I noticed a pattern. I only nasalized close and mid-close front vowels (those in FLEECE and FACE): ĩ and ẽɪ̃. The words “bean” and “bead” would normally involve slightly different phones in my accent (i vs. ĩ), yet with tonsillitis I employed the same, nasalized sound. This pattern did not seem to hold, however, for open or open-mid vowels like the “o” in “pop;” I could easily distinguish the first vowel in French encore (ɑ̃) from the vowel in (conservative) French pâte (ɑ). (The quirk affected the diphthong in the word “kite” in a particularly funny way, since the first vowel was oral while the latter was nasal: aɪ̃.)

The reason for this? I’m not quite sure. It’s possible my tonsils were inflamed enough to impact the movement of my velum and tongue. Although I’m shaky on the details (I’m not a doctor), I did note during a flashlight inspection that the tissues in the back of my mouth were so swollen they almost seemed fused together. So it’s possible the tongue gesture required for the vowel in “bead” shifted the velum enough to render the vowel nasal. There is, I’m sure, much more to the story, but I unfortunately own no home MRI equipment.

As I mentioned, the nasal affliction differs from your traditional cold or flu, at least in my experience. The classic “sick” accent is in a certain respect less nasal, not more. Because the nasal cavities are typically filled with mucus during such illnesses, they become less resonant, thus making phrases like “my nose” sound like “by dose.” However, tonsillitis is a very different beast, despite afflicting the same region of the body.

But everyone is different. I suspect a different individual suffering from last week’s illness may end up with a very different pattern of voice modulation. So simulating a “sick accent” (which actors and work shirkers alike must do occasionally!) requires very specific choices: Is the nasal cavity obstructed or free? Is there soreness in the larynx that might cause hoarseness? How does inflammation impact the soft palate? Is there any discomfort breathing which might diminish airflow? How sickness alters one’s manner of speaking is not such an easy thing to predict.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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3 Responses to Sick Speech

  1. Sidney Wood says:

    The usual explanation is that nasal congestion cuts off nasal resonance, so that nasal stops tend to be reduced to oral stops, [m] coming out as [b] etc. Every cold is unique in some way, so you can never be sure just how much nasal resonance remains from cold to cold, or moment to moment. Throw in tonsillitis as well, with velar swelling affecting oral resonances as well, in addition to impeding velar movement and nasal resonance control, and possibly making you hold back on other oral movements to ease some pain, you might not know exactly what to expect, except you want to be rid of it, which I hope you are by now.

    Actors can probably get by on stage with stereotypical simulation of congestion, [b] for [m] etc, and some props like handkerchiefs, scarf, and red eyes.

  2. Akito says:

    When native Korean speakers pronouce (Korean) words beginning with nasals /m, n/, they often sound like /b, d/. For example, /ne/ for “yes” often sounds like [de]. The difference between orals and nasals in real language may not be as clear cut as it is in a phonetics class, whether speakers have a cold or not.

  3. Akito says:

    Sorry … pronounce