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Burps in 'Rick and Morty' Are Paralingual Expressions of Emotion, Linguist Says

Belching is a paralinguistic staple that scientists have struggled to study, but ‘Rick and Morty’ is providing researchers with a fresh and varied dataset.

by Matthew Gault
14 December 2019, 4:00am

Image: Adult Swim

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Everyone makes paralinguistic sounds every day. We clear our throat, we gasp. When an editor narrows his eyes and says “mm hmm,” he doesn’t have to say an actual word. I know what he means. Burps, too, can be an important part of a conversation, but linguists have struggled to study their paralinguistic aspects because there’s not much burping data to study. Enter Rick and Morty and its ever belching anti-hero Rick Sanchez.

University of Southern California paralinguistic researcher Brooke Kinder has analyzed Rick’s burps to study its unique patterns, and suggests that—at least according to Rick and Morty—burping can be used to express emotion or assert dominance. She presented her work at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America published her study, “Acoustic Characteristics of Belching in Speech.”

“Paralinguistics have been shown to carry significant meaning when inserted into conversation, and being able to understand the meanings of these less common sounds can lead to a greater understanding of natural language processing," Kinder said in her presentation.

There’s other problems with studying belching—the sounds tend to blow out the sensitive equipment linguists use to break sounds into their component pieces. “Belched speech is often very erratic and unstable,” Kinder said. “A lot of times these measurements were so off the charts that software was unable to accurately record the measurements.”

Kinder was able to liken it to vocal fry and make some observations. “The grammatical functions of these paralinguistic sounds are typical things like expressing emotion or affect, relationship control via the sense of camaraderie or relationship control via dominance,” she said during her presentation. “Rick will often do these belches when he’s being dismissive of his son-in-law, who he hates, or when he’s trying to assert his own importance. When he’s talking to other mutli-dimensional Ricks it gets completely out of control because they’re all trying to use it as a way to associate it with their identity. Those episodes have like, 30 to 40 belches an episode, so it took quite a bit of time to analyze.”

Kinder admitted the acoustic and linguistic study of belching has a long way to go. “Due to the inherent unstable articulatory nature of belching, it is unclear as to whether these criteria present a defensive set of acoustic criteria, but it is the first significant step taken in half a century to provide phonetic/ acoustic representation of belching,” she said.

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