Published online 19 December 2001 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news011220-10


It's the drink talking

Tripping tongues betray tipsiness.

The smooth talk won't work after a few glasses.The smooth talk won't work after a few glasses.© Photodisc

In the season of office parties, a team of US and UK scientists cautions that by far the clearest indication of drunkenness is stumbling speech. Repeated, missed or elongated words and syllables "betray even mild intoxication" they say1.

Most people also show themselves up with slow, high-pitched speech, although one in five buck these trends with lowered voices. Whether the latter group have just learned to hide their inebriation better than the rest of us is not yet clear.

In other words, speech patterns are not an infallible substitute for watching how often your colleague's glass is refilled.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour have been studied extensively. But few studies have focused specifically on speech, and there is no clear consensus between them. Some suggest, for example, that the voice gets higher with increasing drunkenness (like Marilyn Monroe's in Some Like It Hot); others conclude that it gets lower (more like Tom Waits).

Measured words

Harry Hollien, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, and colleagues measured pitch, speed, articulation and volume in 35 young adults, who were divided into three groups according to how much they usually drink.

Each person was assessed when sober and after increasing quantities of gin or rum, blended with a mixer and with a potassium-containing drink that minimized nausea. At the highest dosage the volunteers were deemed to be "severely intoxicated". They then had to perform various speaking tasks, including reading a passage and discussing a topic freely.

Hollien's group found a slight but significant increase in pitch and reduction in speed with increasing alcohol intake, for both men and women. But nonfluencies - added or omitted phonemes, repeated and lengthened words - were the real giveaway. These were markedly more common even below the legal alcohol limit for driving. 

  • References

    1. Hollien, H., DeJong, G., Martin, C. A., Schwartz, R. & Liljegren, K. Effects of ethanol intoxication on speech suprasegmentals. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 110, 3198 - 3206 (2001). | Article | ISI | ChemPort |