On speaking gibberish

On speaking gibberish

Below is a video about the unfortunate case of TV news journalist Serene Branson, who suffered what has since been identified as a migraine live on air. She is, you may be relieved to know, absolutely fine, and despite rumours that she had a stroke, she has suffered no lasting effects and has made a complete recovery. It turns out that some types of migraine can actually mimic the symptoms of a stroke.

As she went live, reporting from the Grammys, the migraine took hold and affected part of the brain that deals with language, giving her a type of condition known as aphasia. At first she simply appears to stumble over her words, but within seconds her speech has deteriorated into total nonsense.

Although ultimately harmless, this must have been distressing; but what fascinates me is the gobbledegook itself. Apart from the fact that she ends up not pronouncing any recognisable words, all the syllables she utters are recognisable as standard components of North American English. It’s not a series of unintelligble sounds; it’s a series of syllables and even complete words, but assembled in a manner that is completely meaningless.

The first serious blunder is “virtation”, which isn’t an English word but sounds as if it should be. Not only that, but her intonation is preserved to such an extent, that even while she’s spouting random syllables, you can clearly hear the grammatical structure of what she’s trying to say. Listen to her final sentence: the rhythm and intonation are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an American journalist hastily handing over to the studio or a pre-recorded insert. Imagine that what she’s trying to say is, “Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of tonight’s event.”

Human language is one of the most complex phenomena ever studied, and experts have only scratched the surface of understanding, mostly through observing cases like this. There is no one language centre in the brain, but many different things working together: areas dealing with nouns, others with grammar, still more with other aspects of language comprehension and production, and they’re scattered about the brain. This is only one type of aphasia: there are even more bizarre types of aphasia, including one where the sufferer can understand spoken language and can converse normally, and can even read aloud, but cannot understand written texts. Think about that for a minute: imagine you can’t understand anything written down, but you can read it out perfectly.

We tend to take language for granted, but it’s quite possibly one of our greatest achievements. This is basically what happens when a small part of it stops functioning.