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Pauses between Words

If the face is the window of the soul (cf. L. vultus est index animi), then speech is the window of the mind. Pauses between words are also part of speech, and as such are to be reckoned as indices of mental states.

Pauses may be motivated by a number of performance factors, including indecision and habitual stammering. But nothing except some kind of deficiency explains pausing between “President” and “Komorowski,” as did President Barack Obama in his recorded remarks from Poland, broadcast over the radio today, addressing his Polish counterpart. Not only does this particular pause—i. e. between grammatically closely-bound words––signify a lack of fluency, it also betrays a lack of connection to the addressee and to the context on the utterer’s part.

The language of Mr. Obama’s public speaking, despite all the praise heaped on it by commentators for its putative rhetorical skill, is actually often less than fluent, which is to say that the words do not FLOW (L fluens, fluēnt-, present participle of fluere, ‘to flow’). When these commentators say—as did the one on the BBC World Service, whose words accompanied today’s clip—that Mr. Obama sounds “professorial,” the mind boggles (v. intrans.). Unnatural hesitation, pauses between words, elongated enunciation: are these the phonetic characteristics that make speech “professorial?” If this is an accurate judgment by the public, it can only reflect badly on the professoriate.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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