Eccentric mad scientist Rick Sanchez, of Rick and Morty fame, is as notorious for his constant mid-speech belching as he is for his brilliantly eccentric inventions—and for routinely dragging grandson Morty into highly dangerous situations. Now, paralinguistic researcher Brooke Kidner of the University of Southern California has made the first acoustical analysis of Rick’s unique speech patterns. She described her work at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America this week in San Diego.
“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,” Kidner said at a press conference.
Kidner’s unusual study began with a phonetics seminar course at USC, focusing on non-speech sounds that occur in human speech—groans, gasps, sighs, the infamous “Loser!” sneeze, and so forth—and how we attribute meaning to them (sarcasm, for instance). The instructor noted that burps were an example of non-speech sounds with no meaning. Kidner brought up Rick Sanchez’s constant mid-sentence burps in Rick and Morty as a counter-argument, and the instructor encouraged her to investigate further.
Such sounds are technically known as paralanguage (or vocalics), a field pioneered back in the 1950s by George L. Trager, a linguist who worked in the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. Trager was one of the first to acoustically analyze paralinguistic sounds, producing detailed representations for several, including belching. “He acknowledged that belching is a sound that can be talked through,” Kidner said. “You can still move the articulators in your mouth to try and make an ‘L’ or ‘T’ sound, although it’s easier with vowel sounds.” In other words, you can keep talking mid-burp.
That’s the hallmark of Rick’s speech patterns (“burp-talking”) on Rick and Morty—possible due to alcoholic gastritis, according to one theory, since the character drinks a lot. Series co-creator Justin Roiland voices both main characters and has said that the tic started when he burped accidentally while recording voices for an animated short satirizing Back to the Future. When Rick and Morty was in development, he adapted the burping to Rick’s character, although it took a bit of trial and error before the creators realized the optimal BPM (burps per minute) for that first season. Roiland is not a natural-born belcher, however. “I can’t burp on command,” he told Vice in 2015. “I have to sit there with a low-calorie beer and a bottle of water and blow air into my stomach. It’s disgusting.”