Why ‘speaking moistly’ needs to be taken seriously

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave us all a much-needed laugh when he awkwardly used the phrase “speaking moistly” in response to a recent question about wearing masks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave us all a much-needed laugh when he awkwardly used the phrase “speaking moistly” in response to a recent question about wearing masks.

Bryan Gick, a speech scientist with UBC Language Sciences, knows better than most what comes out of our mouths when we speak. As we all cough into our elbows during the COVID-19 outbreak, Gick says the link between speech and the spread of disease needs much more study.

Bryan Gick
Bryan Gick

We spoke with him about what’s been on his mind since the Prime Minister went viral.

Our Prime Minister coined the catchphrase “speaking moistly” almost by accident. Is this a thing?

When you breathe, speak, sneeze or cough, you release small particles of saliva. Those particles, depending on their size, can either stay airborne for a long time, or land on surfaces relatively quickly. Both of these have issues when it comes to conveying infectious pathogens. In the one case you’ve got particles that are breathed in, and in the other case you’ve got particles that can be picked up by touch. Nobody has actually shown that people are getting infected with coronavirus by these droplets, but it’s a pretty standard way for pathogens to get around.

How does speaking compare with coughing or sneezing?

What’s different about talking is that you put out less saliva, but you tend to do it for a longer period of time. Over the course of a short conversation, thousands of aerosol particles are being released. In many ways, talking is parallel to sneezing or coughing in this regard, because it’s a more prolonged behaviour. If you step into an elevator where somebody just had a conversation with family members, it may be empty but there still may be aerosol particles that you’re breathing in. 

What does “speaking moistly” mean to a scientist?

“Speaking moistly” could apply to super-emitters—people who generate more than the typical number of droplets during speech and who are potentially super-spreaders.

It could also apply to specific sounds, languages or dialects that are especially prone to releasing larger numbers of particles. Aspirated sounds are sounds where you take a breath of air, generate a lot of air pressure and produce a big burst, like “pah” and “tah.” Radio hosts know about “pah” and “tah” because they produce a really loud pop in the microphone. Most dialects of French don’t have these sounds. In English you might say “please” with that burst, but in a French accent it’s a softer “p” that sounds much more like an English “b”.

Does this mean English speakers are at greater risk?

We don’t know whether five minutes in English is more dangerous than five minutes in French. We certainly know that five minutes in English is going to contain a whole lot of aspirated sounds.

We also know that feeling these bursts of air on your skin is a normal part of everyday communication. One way we know this is that if you aim an artificial burst of air anywhere on someone’s skin, it can change their auditory perception. They’ll have the illusion of having heard an aspirated sound. They’ll mishear “bah” as “pah” if they feel a burst of air on their skin. This is part of how we experience speech, and we haven’t paid much attention to it in the past as a vehicle for pathogen transmission. Speech isn’t associated with illness the way coughing and sneezing is. It’s associated with good things like connection and intimacy.

How concerned do we need to be about catching something through speech?

What’s become clear in the current situation is that we need to have researchers coming together who really understand speech and who really understand airborne pathogens. If we’re not all working together on this, we’re not going to understand it fast enough to be able to come up with solutions. In a way, while it’s a funny thing the Prime Minister said, and I appreciate the humour in it, it put the spotlight on some issues about a topic that we all need to be talking about.