Heavy burtation

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One of the most widely discussed aspects of the Grammy Awards ceremony was the painful-to-watch on-camera aphasic episode of Serene Branson, a reporter for CBS news:

As far as I know, it's still not clear what this was: a transient ischemic attack; an aphasic seizure; or something else.

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More here.

[Update — Ms. Branson's doctor explains that her symptoms were the result of a "complex migraine".]


  1. Yuval said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 6:57 am

    On an unrelated note: isn't (Eminem's) 2 wins out of 10 nominations the exact figure you'd expect, considering there are 5 nominees in each category?…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    Brain misfiring.

    It's like a car engine where the timing of the distributor is off. The sparks are still firing, but they are out of synch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignition_system#Mechanically_timed_ignition

    This is how Serene Branson's verbal backfiring is transcribed on The Vine:

    "Well a very very heavay – uh – heaveh burtation tonight. We had a very darist-darison, by, lets go hit teret taysan those to the bet who had the pet."


  3. johndburger said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    @Yuval Only if you think of them as independent trials, which of course they're not: they all have the artist in common.

  4. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    I hear it more like "head the pet" than "had the pet" – I don't hear a difference between the two vowels (probably because my phoneme boundaries are non-American?).

    Pity the video format is not one which, like Youtube, allows repeated playings without reloading the buffer.

    [(myl) The versions on youtube seem to have been removed due to copyright claims from CBS. I've added an audio version to the post above.]

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    I just noticed, in Ms. Branson's second sentence, that — as she struggles to produce intelligible speech — there is a conspicuous amount of consonance, assonance, and alliteration: "darist-darison" and "hit teret taysan those to the bet who had / head the pet".

    I think that this phenomenon offers clues to how the brain functions to produce speech. Namely, in trying to call up a word, we focus on certain key phonemes within it. Certainly this is how I search for a word that is "on the tip of my tongue." We often say (usually merely mentally), "What's that word I'm thinking of? It begins with a 't,' or it begins with a 'd'." Or, "I'm thinking of a word that sounds something like -a-e-," concentrating more on the vowels in the latter case and more on the consonants in the former case. If we are not rushed and performing in front of an audience, this method often works. But if you're live on radio or TV, you don't have time to dredge up the words that you only partially recall. In such cases, skillful and highly experienced media personalities will make a joke about themselves or figure out other clever ways to stall while trying to dredge up the lost word, or simply go around the blocked word and come up with a synonym or circumlocution that gets the idea across some other way.

    Once a person's "motor mouth" starts producing gibberish composed only of parts of words that they wanted to say, then it's likely that they will end up with a cascade of nonsense vocables.

    [(myl) There's been a fair amount of research on error patterns in Wernicke's aphasia, which Ms. Branson's episode somewhat resembles (whatever its true etiology); for a survey as of 1994, see Sheila Blumstein, "Impairments of Speech Production and Speech Perception in Aphasia", Phil. Trans. R. Soc.. An example of a recent publication in this general area is Cristina Romani et al., "Effects of syllable structure in aphasic errors", Cognitive Psychology 62(2) 2011. ]

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    I have the impression that she recognized the problem very quickly. Her demeanor changed coincident with "let's go," which is the typical way to begin "passing the camera" to someone else. If you consider the vowels and syllables, I wonder if "teret taysan" is what came out as she was trying to sign off with her name, "Serene Branson." I can almost hear "Let's go. This is Serene Branson . . ."

  7. Barrett said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    Are there any more examples of this happening to reporters live? Its fascinating.

  8. Wernicke « Raving Psychology said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    […] it was mentioned on Language Log, there is a lot of coverage on the on-camera aphasic episode of Serene Branson, a reporter for CBS. […]

  9. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    I feel it's important to know how she is doing now. CBS says she feels fine and is perfectly OK. And the culprit everyone imputes is a stroke. TIAs are significant warning signs, yet regardless of cause, this seems not to be an innocuous case of stage fright. If this happened to me, what should I do next, medically?

    [(myl) If it happened to me, I'd get a full neurological work-up right away. The fact that Ms. Burton has apparently not done this is widely viewed as puzzling. I hope that this is because she's already aware of a relatively benign cause, such as a history of minor seizures with no worrying underlying pathology.]

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    Several years before he died, my father (a vascular surgeon) suffered a TIA. In his case, the major symptom was complete loss of vision. The first thing he did was take some aspirin to thin the blood. Then off to the hospital (his wife drove). His vision was back in an hour, and he recovered completely. (His death from cancer was unrelated.) There was no way of knowing if or how much the aspirin helped, but everyone agreed it was a good idea.

  11. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    The juxtaposition of this post and the one just before it shows that even with gibberish, context is important. If the clip of Branson had been described as coming from SNL, we'd be laughing at it.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    I think that Spell Me Jeff (in his first comment) is spot on. Ms. Branson was conscious of what was happening to her and she was trying to salvage her hand-off. The "let's go" is short for "let's go to… (another reporter somewhere else)," and "hit teret taysan" may be a deformation of "this is Serene Branson." From there to the end of the clip, it is amazing that she maintains the proper wind-down intonation for a reporter who is passing the microphone to another reporter. If you're just listening to the intonation and not paying attention to the individual "words," it sounds almost normal, not garbled at all. To me, it's heroic that — considering the circumstances — she could do that with such seeming aplomb, especially since (again, as Spell Me Jeff pointed out), by the time she said "let's go," she was clearly aware that something was seriously amiss with her speech production. An impressive recovery and closing.

  13. steffifay said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    Someone already has the website up lol

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    From Jerry Packard (University of Illinois), a specialist on aphasia: "A textbook example of fluent aphasic speech output."

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    MYL's comment to Mr Fnortner is in keeping with VM's comment. Someone experiencing such a moment on the air for the first time could certainly be excused for totally freaking out. Experience and natural poise might have helped. But foreknowledge of the condition is also a reasonable explanation. And if that's the case, I'd imagine that TIA is ruled out.

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    Even if Spell Me Jeff is right about foreknowledge (and I think he is), what must it have been like to think one message and hear yourself utter something startlingly different? Then to be so aware of the disconnect that you willed yourself a deliberate conclusion, only to have those words turn to gibberish? Like being seriously drunk? Like rotating your monitor image 90 degrees then trying to use the mouse? Some web sites I've seen ridicule her moment, but I think her aplomb was heroic.

  17. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Heavy burtation [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    […] Language Log » Heavy burtation languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2971 – view page – cached February 16, 2011 @ 6:10 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Psychology of language Tags […]

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    Are not Serena's last 3 words "hand it back"?

  19. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    MYL's comment to Mr Fnortner: In analogy to aphasia there is agraphia aka dysgraphia, as when typing Burton instead ofn an intended Branson.

  20. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    "Fortner." Not a good idea to copy someone else's comment unedited. Sorry!

  21. Catsidhe said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    I have had two aphasic episodes, both I think as a result of migraines.

    The second one I had the fun of live blogging.

  22. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    Hermann Burchard, you have me at a disadvantage. Please tell me which post I plagiarized, sir.

  23. Michael Drake said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

    It's pretty clear that she was just quoting from Mick Jagger's Grammy performance of "Everybody Needs Someone to Love."

  24. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    Mr. Fnortner: NO OFFENSE INTENDED! It was I myself, not you, who copied — your name — from a comment by "Spell Me Jeff" & thought in so doing had repeated Jeff's typo, which was NO typo: So the comment which offends you was my attempt to put a correctly spelt "Fortner."

    Only now, responding with my attempt to apologize to you, do I realize that you are signing as "Fnortner." This is almost on a comedic level, a series of misunderstandings, hope I managed to explain myself. if not let me know.

  25. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    HB, these things happen. All is well.

  26. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    She has my sincere sympathy. If that happened to me I'd be scarred for life!

    But have we witnessed the birth of a new word? Is "(heavy) burtation" now to become a popular term for an aphasic episode or other spectacular speech error? I speculate that this might have some potential, as it means something we don't have many good nontechnical words for and that happens often enough to merit one, while the word itself carries an appropriate echo of "blurt" and comes pre-packaged with a good scalar adjective for the severity of the screwup. It's certainly way ahead of "refudiate" on these points, and look how far that one got…

    I can only cross my fingers and hope!

  27. Craig said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    To me, it sounds like she got tangled in the string of vers in "very, very, heavy", where even the least "-vy" seems to echo the "ve[r]" sound.

    Similarly, I hear "vurtation" rather than "burtation" as a further echo of the "v-r".

    I also note that the transcription lacks the "du-it" after the second "heavy", which I think is supposed to have been "duty".

    To me, it feels like she was going for "We had a very, very heavy-duty rotation tonight."

    The string "darist-darison" then seems like an attempt to get out "comparison".

  28. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 1:06 am

    I've known people with seizure disorders who were affected by flashing, bright lights. One had a seizure after a prolonged thunderstorm with lots of lightning, viewed while doing dishes at a sink in front of a window.

    I happened to watch the Grammys for the first time in years, and I wondered if the Arcade Fire show with its constant flashing might have set off seizures in some sensitive people. Since I'm not a neurologist, I have no idea if Arcade Fire's light show was a factor.

    Like others, my sympathies to the reporter, who surely did not start the night expecting to be diagnosed by every armchair viewer.

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    My experience with TIAs, on my blog.

  30. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 11:28 am


    Thanks for that. After frustrating searches on Google and Medline, I was unable to determine if such aphasia could present acutely and quickly wear off. Indeed, most of the abstracts I read described chronic aphasia. What were termed "episodes" (one of my search words) tended to last weeks or months rather than minutes or hours.

    Your story confirms the possibility that Branson suffered an acute event that seems to have worn off pretty quickly.

  31. rre said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    This happened to me a few months before my first and only tonic clonic (epileptic) seizure which started in the temporal lobe with an auditory hallucination. I have since had a few brief dysphasic episodes due to the antiseizure medication. The neurologist gave me a word test, I had to list words starting with D for thirty seconds. I was happy to ace the test.

    This isn't aphasia which means lack of speech, it is dysphasia.

    [(amz) You're suffering from the etymological fallacy. Yes, by its etymology, aphasia ought to refer to a lack of speech, but the long-established usage — in particular, the usage of aphasiologists — of the word refers to disordered speech, or dysphasia.

    This doesn't detract from your personal story, or your advice below. (By 1996 my guy Jacques had developed epilepsy, but the complex partial seizures of left temporal lobe epilepsy, characterized by absences and automatisms, rather than the more dramatic tonic-clonic seizures.)]

    She should have at least a CT scan and MRI, and an EEG. Probably this is a partial temporal lobe seizure, but they can be triggered by a variety of things from sleep deprivation to a space-occupying lesion and need investigating. Perhaps she has had them for years, who knows.

  32. Peter said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    @Jeff, there is a selection effect, in that articles about neurological deficits tend to only get written if the deficit hangs around long enough for someone to get to a specialist who characterizes them and writes about them. So all the literature on neuropsychology talks about strokes and traumatic injuries, whereas migraines, seizures and TIAs are actually more common ways of producing the same focal neurological signs in the short term.

  33. Tom said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    Now we know what Miss Teen South Carolina 2007 is doing for a living.

  34. Eric P Smith said,

    February 18, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    This is my guess as to Ms Branson's words before her brain scrambled the phonemes:

    "Well, a very very heavy-duty rotation tonight. We had a very…
    Serene Branson …
    Right let's go ahead Serene Branson goes to the back to hand it back."

  35. Lorenzo said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    rre, words mean what everybody means using them, etymology is a lot of fun exactly for that reason. Otherwise a pedophile should be a friend of children and an assassin should be a person that smokes hashish. What she had is a typical Broca's aphasia. I had a brain hemorrhage in my Broca's area and I had the same problem for a lot longer. I doubt she was really figuring it out if not just faintly, the beautiful thing of having expressive aphasia is experiencing how we don't hear at all what we say, because we're so used to the activity of our arcuate fasciculus that connects so well our speech production and comprehension areas. Her aplomb is a little overrated too, when a part of the brain is temporarily not functional the others keep going well, sometimes without any effect. It took me three days to figure out I was aphasic when I was annoyed and asked "are you all fucking retarded today?" and my sister caressed my had saying "Lorenzo, believe me, it's really hard for us to understand what you are talking about". I said all sorts of funny things and I did it with my usual facial expressions, my same confidence, my typical behavior. It was really strange, I was even convincing my friend Veronica telling her a story about some other imaginary girl with an invented funny name, it's not aplomb, it's just Broca's aphasia. She most probably had a TIA and I can see that from the motion of her mouth that shows a little deficit of her left hemisphere that happens a little too fast to be an extension of an epileptic fit from Broca to motor cortex. I would rather think of a TIA due to migraine or thrombosis with quick dissolution.

  36. GeorgeW said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    Apparently, the answer is migraine aura.


  37. Jim Geraghty said,

    February 20, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    The change of expression as it dawns on her that she CAN NOT control what she is saying is horrifying to watch.
    I don't mean to make light of her painful event, but I could not help being reminded of my dating years while trying to talk to any young woman that I was attracted to. I believe she actually performed better than several notable instances of my own verbal calamities.

  38. Bert Asian said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    "Are there any more examples of this happening to reporters live? Its fascinating."

    About a month before Serene Branson, Sarah Carlson suffered a seizure while live on the air at WISC in Madison, WI. It actually looked VERY similar to Serene Branson's episode.She had surgery to remove a brain tumor four months earlier.


    As for Ms. Branson, she said in an interview that she was trying to say, "Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys". I believe she started out by trying to say something maybe to the effect of, "There was a very high expectation", or something similar, as in the idea that it was expected that Eminem would win big. When she realized she was in trouble I think she attempted to say something like, "Let's go ahead and go to the tape'. Immediately after this incident they cut to the pre-recorded segment of her report.

  39. Lorenzo said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    Thank you Bert, very interesting. It's a different story though, Sarah had an epileptic fit and figured it out while saying Florida trying to fight hard against it. Great job.
    Serene had expressive aphasia and was speaking the way I was speaking when I was suffering that. I'm still not sure she completely realized that something was wrong during the shooting.

  40. Scott said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    I find it sad that half way through, you can see in her face that she knows something is going wrong.

    I hope that these few months later, everything is alright with her now.

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