Talking, Fast and Slow

Why are you talking so fast?

Talking, Fast and Slow
People talking (Photo credit: Redd F / Unsplash)

Whilst living in New Jersey for some five months, almost twenty years ago, I was accused by a New Jerseyite—I choose that term deliberately over New Jerseyan—of “slow Midwestern answering.” At that time, I took this comment to be slightly insulting, for lack of a better adjective. Ten years later, I moved back to Ohio (hio, io...) from The Commonwealth*. I noticed that everyone seemed to be speaking  s l  o   w    l    y....

It reminded me of the time I had returned home—having been in Amsterdam for a week—coffee, stateside, tasted like water—including the swill they serve at the place named for the character in that long-winded book about the whale.

The Atlantic once published an article concerning a study of regional speech rates performed by a so-called “conversational analytics” company. According to that piece, here is the ranking of states, from fastest-talking to slowest:

  1. Oregon
  2. Minnesota
  3. Massachusetts
  4. Kansas
  5. Iowa
  6. Vermont
  7. Alaska
  8. South Dakota
  9. New Hampshire
  10. Nebraska
  11. Connecticut
  12. North Dakota
  13. Washington
  14. Wisconsin
  15. Rhode Island
  16. Idaho
  17. Florida
  18. Pennsylvania
  19. New Jersey
  20. West Virginia
  21. Maine
  22. Colorado
  23. California
  24. Missouri
  25. Montana
  26. Indiana
  27. Hawaii
  28. Virginia
  29. Nevada
  30. Arizona
  31. Utah
  32. Michigan
  33. Tennessee
  34. Maryland
  35. Oklahoma
  36. Wyoming
  37. Delaware
  38. New York
  39. Kentucky
  40. Illinois
  41. Ohio
  42. Arkansas
  43. Georgia
  44. Texas
  45. New Mexico
  46. North Carolina
  47. Alabama
  48. South Carolina
  49. Louisiana
  50. Mississippi

The states highlighted above are those where I have lived and/or spent enough time with natives from said state to have noticed how quickly or slowly people from that state tend to speak. Overall, the article seems accurate to me. Furthermore, when people move from one state to the other, they modify their rate of speech accordingly.

I am a bit curious as to where D.C. ranks, and incurious enough to bother researching it. New York is an interesting case, in that while some of us may think of it as synonymous with New York City, most of the state tends to be slow-speaking, much like most of Ohio and Pennsylvania (except Philadelphia). It seems odd to me that West Virginia is so high on the list, and New Jersey so low. It might also be interesting to see whether there is any correlation between the speech rates for the native languages of the predominant ethnic groups in each state and the English speech rates of the present-day inhabitants. For example, do speakers of German speak more quickly than speakers of  French? What about speakers of Spanish, Greek, Swahili, Mandarin, Gaelic, Marathi, or Italian? Are the rates of speech of these languages reflected in the states where people are predominantly from those linguistic backgrounds?

I have come to think of rate-of-speech as just one element of the normal code-switching that most self-aware speakers do almost subconsciously. I tend to speak more slowly in Ohio than I do when visiting Massachusetts; my accent also changes slightly. Similarly, I sometimes modify my vocabulary when speaking to a non-native speaker of English.

*Massachusetts, obviously. Technically, others exist; perhaps I shall explain it to you when you are older.

As an interesting counterpoint to the idea of speaking “too slowly,” Fred Rogers was known for advocating a slow, deliberate approach to speech so that children (his main target audience) could better comprehend his message.

Editor’s Note: The title of this piece is inspired by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

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