I was fascinated by Cally Soukup's 1999 newsgroup post about speech therapist Karyn Ashburn's talk at Minicon, discussing Karyn's observations of the speech patterns and behaviors of groups of people intensely interested in a particular field or hobby compared ("fandom", "fans", or "geeks") to non-fans or non-geeks. I think these patterns will feel familiar to technologists.
Minicon Panel Report
The best piece of programming I attended at Minicon was a panel, or rather a
lecture, by Karyn Ashburn, Elise Mattheson's sister. She is a speech
therapist, with lots of initials after her name, who works with adult
populations, many of whom are nonverbal or barely verbal, and she isn't a
member of fandom. As the sister of a member of fandom, however, she's had
an opportunity to observe us in one of our native habitats when meeting
Elise at conventions. And as a non-fan and a person passionately interested
in speech production, she's noticed some common features in the way fans
We were lucky in that she hadn't shown up for her panel at 5:00 on Saturday,
which would have been in a smallish function room and restricted to only an
hour. Instead she was rescheduled for after closing ceremonies in the
ballroom, so a large fraction of the convention members had a chance to hear
her. Because we wouldn't let her leave, her talk ended up being about 2 1/2
hours long, but she still left us with a lot of questions. I recommend her
as a speaker to any convention. The bare gist of what she said follows.
On those occasions when she showed up at a con to meet Elise, she saw lots
of fans in groups talking. To her they seemed angry and rude. To Elise
they seemed nothing of the sort. Observing them more closely, she realized
that they were using different social cues, different body language,
different eye contact, and even different ways of forming vowels than what
she jokingly called "my people", or what for convenience sake I'll call
mundanes. She hastened to say she doesn't have a theory, or even yet much
of a hypothesis for why this may be (or a large enough sample size across
populations to prove that this is so), but she does have a lot of questions.
She also seemed quite concerned that we would feel offended by what she had
to say, but what she told us was so interesting, and often so recognizably
true, that I don't think anyone was. Of course everything that I'm about to
say is an overgeneralization; different fans possess these traits to greater
or lesser degrees.
First, the mechanics of actual vocal production, especially vowels. The
phonemes in the words "him" and "meet" are produced with the tounge in
various positions, and the lips stretched back. The phonemes "uh" and "oh"
are produced with rounded lips. This, at any rate, is the case in mundania.
Fans, she has noticed, push the vowels forward; rounding the lips somewhat
even for "ee" and "ih". We use our lips a lot, but at the same time, we use
our cheeks and our chins not as often as would be expected. We stabilize
the cheeks and the chin, and we "prolabialize". (When, while sitting at a
table, I leaned my chin on my hands while talking to her, she became
uncomfortable. She can't do that easily; her chin moves more when she
Second, fans articulate more than mundanes. She had various of us stand up
and say things, and then repeated them in "mundane". When I said the phrase
"talk to", she pointed out that I had pronounced the "k" on the end of
"talk". Mundanes, she said, wouldn't. We pronounce more of the terminal
consonents in a phrase than a typical mundane does. We are more likely than
mundanes to pronounce the "h" in "where", and the "l" in "folk". (She
seemed to think it was rather charming; that we were preserving old
pronounciations, or reinventing them from the way words are spelled.)
We also speak in larger word groupings between breaths. This does not
necessarily mean that we speak faster; we just pause for a shorter time
between words -- except where there is punctuation. She pointed out that
when Teresa Nielsen Hayden said she came from Mesa, Arizona, Teresa actually
pronounced the comma by putting a slightly longer pause there, while most
mundanes would simply run the words together. Mundanes slur a lot of
consonents that we pronounce individually. We use punctuation in our spoken
utterances. Sometimes we even footnote.
What we say in those large word groupings is also different. We tend to use
complete sentences, and complex sentence structure. When we pause, or say
"uh", it tends to be towards the beginning of a statement, as we formulate
the complete thought. The "idea" or "information" portion of a statement is
paramount; emotional reassurance, the little social noises (mm-hmm) are
reduced or omitted. We get to the heart of what we want to say -- if
someone asks us how to do something we tell them, not leading up to it
gently with "have you tried doing it this way?"
This leads us to body language. Our body language is also different from
mundanes. We tend to not use eye contact nearly as often; when we do, it
often signifies that it's the other person's turn to speak now. This is
opposite of everyone else. In mundania, it's *breaking* eye contact that
signals turn-taking, not *making* eye contact. She demonstrated this on
DDB; breaking eye contact and turning slightly away, and he felt insulted.
On the other hand, his sudden staring at her eyes made her feel like a
professor had just said "justify yourself NOW". Mutual "rudeness"; mixed
We use our hands when we talk, but don't seem to know what to do with our
arms. When thinking how to put something we close our eyes or look to the
side and up, while making little "hang on just a second" gestures to show
that we're not finished talking. We interrupt each other to finish
sentences, and if the interrupter got it right, we know we've communicated
and let them speak; if they get it wrong we talk right over them. This is
not perceived as rude, or not very rude.
We accept corrections on matters of fact and of pronunciation; when I asked
her about whether fanspeak might be related to Asperger's Syndrome, and
mispronounced "Asperger's", I was corrected in mid-sentence by the man
sitting next to me, corrected myself, thanked him, and finished the
sentence. One Doesn't Do That in Mundania. Fans understand that
mispronouncing words one has only read is very common in fandom, and not
When we make a joke, we don't do a little laugh in the middle of a word to
signal that it's funny; we inhale and exhale a very fast, short breath at
the end of the sentence, rather like a suppressed beginning of a laugh, or a
kind of a gasp.
She didn't get much into why this is all the case (I think she was surprised
at the laughter when she suggested diffidently that we might be a bit under
socialized. No, really?? ), and turned away questions about possible
pathology. While more comfortable with us now, I suspect she was probably
still worried about offending us. She did suggest that many of the common
features of fanspeak seem to be related to thinking in "written English".
The day before, while waiting for her sister to show up, Elise had suggested
that perhaps the overuse of the lips and underuse of cheeks and chin had
come from very small children wanting to communicate complex ideas to
grownups; the facial muscles still being underdeveloped, the easiest way to
articulate would be to concentrate on the lips, holding the cheeks and chin
still as a way to reduce the complexity of word formation.