Compression | Practice that aims to reduce, shorten, compress, or contract speech. Compression allows one to save time or catch their breath. It creates impressions of speed, blurring, mush, or encryption.

Compression occurs when we hear an utterance that seems shorter than what we were expecting. Spoken language is filled with practices that aim to save time, avoid redundancy, and state things in short. This collection has chosen to distinguish between different types of compression not only in terms of processing methods but also in terms of the units of language, or scale of discourse, it acts upon.

Compression by output acceleration

This first level of compression is the simplest: speech is compressed to the extent that a speaker is talking much more quickly than the norm, whether for stylistic effect, as in double-time raps with certain American auctioneers, in response to a challenge, as in “speed-debates” held at American universities, when caught in the momentum of an explanation, as Michel Rocard is here, or because one has been overcome by a violent emotion (sic)—(see also Je bavarde toujours).

Articulatory compression

Output acceleration often goes hand in hand with distorting word pronunciation: such is the case in this excerpt of the film La BM du Seigneur by Jean-Charles Hue, or in this interview where Françoise Sagan personally explains that the typist must slow down the tape recorder’s speed to be able to understand the words that are coming from it. This same process of eating up one’s words can be heard in an excerpt of the film L’Esquive, where a scene from a Marivaux play is spoken at top speed by an actor whose shyness (desire to be heard as little as possible) gives us the impression that his syllables have been pressed together (see also La nécessité de vivre ensemble).

In this short excerpt from an interview with criminal Charles Manson, in this excerpt of the film Hibernatus starring Louis De Funès, or even in this Dario Fo performance, phoneme compression is so exaggerated that it makes each speaker’s words sound burlesque and parodic. Similarly, Jean Sas unnerves his interlocutor in this street interview by pretending to stammer before speeding through parts of his questions. The poet Jaap Blonk has stylized this process in an exemplary way by methodically removing vowels and diphthongs from a given expression.

Morphological compression

Morphological compression takes place when words or phrases are literally abridged. The most common forms of abridgment are syncopes (v’là, short for voilà), apocopes (ciné, short for cinéma), and aphereses (bus, short for autobus). This process can even be heard in a rap song by Seth Gueko, as well as in another scene from the film L’Esquive. Likewise when Patrick Modiano quotes Baudelaire’s famous line, “Mais le vert paradis des amours enfantines” [“But the green paradise of childish love”]: either he considers this literary reference to be sufficiently well-known for his interlocutor to recognize it, or he is suddenly taken aback by the thought of repeating the root enfan- [child]—he removes the last two syllables from the word enfantines [childish].

This type of compression is also used as a rhetorical figure: when Jérôme Game reads his poems, utterances are arbitrarily truncated, often in the middle of words, forcing listeners to mentally rebuild the missing halves with all of the accompanying ambiguities such a process creates.

Other types of abridgment, very common in everyday speech, are acronyms or initialisms, as in this excerpt from a Grand Magasin show, in this interview parody with a financial analyst or, even more absurdly, in this video found on YouTube.

Syntactic compression

Another way of compressing discourse is to trim the very structure of what is being spoken: removing articles, pronouns, prepositions, even entire swaths of an utterance. Asyndeton, for example, is a rhetorical figure that cuts down an utterance by removing its logical connectors and conjunctions, like when journalist Jean-François Kahn gets carried away with himself. This kind of syntactic compression can also be used as a poetic technique, as can be heard in this reading by Olivier Cadiot.

Onomatopoeia is another very effective means of syntactic compression, as in this example of a witness to a car accident whose narrative mirrors the speed and brutality of the event being described. Poets and actors are masters at playing with an onomatopoeia’s power of ambiguity and evocation: : take futurist Marinetti’s poem Battaglia di Adrianopoli, for example, or Louis de Funès in another excerpt of Hibernatus, or Jacques Villeret in Jean Girault’s film La Soupe aux choux.

Rhetorical compression

Other possible examples of compression, albeit at a different scale, are processes where a word, sound, or phrase replace entire swaths of discourse. A building manager compresses the exasperation he feels about the occupants of the building he supervises into a whistling noise. One can also imagine that this whistling noise is replacing a word he cannot find or does not have the time to look for, as in this excerpt where a speaker produces a certain dramatic effect all while adequately illustrating what is being said by imitating the sound of an alarm. In this excerpt of a television show, a man’s long moan supplants his speech and serves as a response to the upsetting statement he has just heard.

In a certain way, pronouns (personal, demonstrative, relative) compress the utterances they stand for: they can be systematically decompressed on the condition of knowing the context they have been spoken in. A number of rhetorical strategies can be listed here. Another excerpt from a work by Olivier Cadiot shows us the ironic use he makes of the term “et cetera”: compressing an implicit whole presented as obvious but open, in reality, to a multitude of possible interpretations left to the listener’s imagination.

Conversely, a word or two can contain an entire formalized implicit statement within itself: such is the case when saying “I do” at a wedding, which is a compression of the whole matrimonial contract as it has just been uttered by a state or religious authority. In an excerpt of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer’s marriage ceremony, we can thus hear how the “I will” spoken by the spouses is charged with all that it represents for the British state, the English Monarchy, the Anglican Church, the Windsor family, and maybe the princely couple’s love as well. This moment can be compared to the one that follows it, where the contracting parties are made to repeat each word of the engagement they have just agreed to.

Another example of rhetorical compression can be found in certain slogans or catchphrases: when a group of women chant, “Yes, Dad; yes, Honey; yes, Boss—we’re sick of it!”a significant part of feminist discourse finds itself compressed into this ironic calling out of patriarchy.


Et les toilettes fut fermées, hélas

Excerpt from a disciplinary council, Les pieds sur terre, France Culture, 2009.

Pauvre et bienvenue on vous écrira

Scene from the subway, recording by Emmanuelle Lafon, 2017.

Y’a trop d’émotion

Rod Paradot, acceptance speech, Césars ceremony, 2016. 

T’as beau leur montrer par A + B

Account recorded by the photographer Antoine Bruy, 2016. 

Il avait un salon tapissé d’astrakan

Serge Gainsbourg, excerpt from an interview on the radio, France Culture, 1982

Ik vind het niet leuk

Extract from a language course, YouTube, 2010

Nine seventy-five

John Korrey, excerpt of an auction, excerpt from the DVD Chant of a Champion, 2007.

Sauf sur un point

Marc Kravetz, excerpt of the show Les Matins, France Culture, 2007.

My penis crushed in the bathroom

Henry Rollins, excerpt of the stand-up comedy show Up For It, 2001.