From Nursery Rhymes to Solemn Oaths; The Science of Joint Speech Rhythmicity

Billy Vaughan speaks to Dr. Fred Cummins about the process of putting together experiments for an emerging branch of science.[br]DURING the summer the main concourse of campus becomes a completely different beast. No longer needed for society posters, the pillars in front of the library and arts building become home to recruiting posters for the many psychological and sociological studies that take place on campus during the summer months. Below the snappy descriptions of the experiments lie removable phone numbers, for anyone who feels like volunteering some of their time. Just learning about the work done is an incentive in itself.One such academic vying for volunteers this summer was Dr. Fred Cummins, who is currently running a study on rhythmicity in joint speech, and the effect it can have on how we interpret the words being said.Often, when we think of joint speech, we think of passive activities, such as saying prayers or reciting an oath. Cummins says, however, that this is not always the case. “There’s something that’s unclear here, because this kind of speaking is knitted into things like going to mass, or going to court, or classrooms and so on. But it’s also often a part of political protests or in football terraces where people chant. It’s not all authority speaking down to you, sometimes it involves asserting yourself as a group, and that area hasn’t really been studied in its own right.”
“If we want to get a handle on how we create our society, how we come to be the people that we are this is one place that we really should be looking into further.”
The study itself is not just confined to UCD and it covers two more studies: one in Germany and one in France. “This is a very small part of a much bigger puzzle,” Dr. Cummins explained, “the more we look into it, the more we are surprised by how much new information we are getting.”The geographic spread is not only there for accuracy, but to assess the effect of rhythmicity on languages. “We’re building in a replication into the experiment, so that if we find that rhythmicity matters, we want to find it in three centres, with three different experimenters. We are trying to see if the effect of the rhythm will be independent of the languages.”After the experiments are done, the work will hopefully be published, and the inevitable process of academic criticism will begin. Peer review is one such mechanism, but Cummins sees it as a necessary evil. “If we put it into a journal, it will be peer reviewed. Peer review is a lousy mechanism but it’s the only one we have at the moment really. Your work goes out to three anonymous reviewers, and one of those could be someone who doesn’t like you or the work you’re doing, and they will be biased.”
“You always have to address criticism, and that is an active process. The interpretation of these doesn’t happen on its own.”
He is always aware that the process of criticism does not stop after publication. “You always have to address criticism, and that is an active process. The interpretation of these doesn’t happen on its own. It’s a contribution to an ongoing discussion.” In terms of where the experiment may influence the wider scientific world, and indeed how we live our lives, Dr. Cummins is hoping for a solid foundation to build on. “Our work is adding to a very small pile of findings that will contribute to the question of why no science has been done here before. This is an old vocal behaviour that is hugely significant in our lives and has been for a very long time. In this area of research, we’ve always had a blind spot when it comes to what we do together. If we want to get a handle on how we create our society and how we come to be the people that we are, this is one place that we really should be looking into further.”Dr. Cummins points out that the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” has been subject to ten times as much research as the area that they are studying. It appears that life for an emerging branch of study, such as rhythmicity in joint speech, is most certainly an uphill struggle. It is a struggle that he has been familiar with, as he has been working in this field for over a decade. “It’s good that it’s finally getting a bit of attention now. We have 20 subjects in each location, which may seem small but we’re hoping that the results will be clear enough to be apparent with just 60 subjects. Then we can be reasonably confident of our results.”The risks and struggles involved in being a part of an emerging scientific offshoot are formidable, but the rewards can also be great. It is easy to forget that Dr. Cummins and his team make up only one part of the vast ecosystem of experimental research on campus, each with their own story of challenges and victories, which the average student will give little thought to during the academic year.  It is only in the summer, when precious advertising space is available, that the world of campus research takes centre stage.