March 13, 2006

What is the negative voice of authority?

During the NPR Marketplace show of 3/10/2006, Tom Bedore starts off a segment this way:

Currently set at eight point two trillion dollars, our new debt ceiling could approach nine trillion dollars. [audio link]

Although Marketplace is a business show, and Bedore is a comedian, his segment is actually about linguistics.

In particular, it's about the phonetics of rhetoric, as Bedore immediately explains:

And I said "new debt ceiling could approach nine trillion dollars" in a manner that emphasizes
I understand the significance of the situation,
and that it is bad.
Well, I have no idea what I'm talking about, and just assume nine trillion dollars in debt is bad.
But it might be a great thing.
I have no idea.

So what exactly is the "manner" that emphasizes his (pretended) understanding of the situation's gravity?

To help you think about it, here's a waveform and pitch track of "new debt ceiling could approach nine trillion dollars", with a link to the .wav file:

Send me your analysis, and I'll summarize what I get, and give my own opinion.

You don't need to accept Bedore's account of what his "manner" communicates. His performance of the phrase is certainly marked in several ways, and he describes insightfully what he's communicating when he performs it; but you should start with an open mind about what the performance itself contributes, independent of the content and context of the material performed.

During the rest of Bedore's piece, he repeatedly adopts an authoritative voice, and then immediately subverts it. As he says after his next round of self-exposure:

Some of you thought that I was making sense until I pointed out I had no idea
what I was talking about.
And I pointed out that I had no idea what I was talking about only because
I'm not a politician.

Or, he might have said, a radio journalist. Or a blogger, or a consultant, or a teacher, or just about anyone except a comedian. His generalization:

It's too easy for people to sound like they know what they're talking about
and not know what they're talking about.

All too true, and just as true about the phonetics of rhetoric as about any other topic. So if you happen to know what various experts have to say about the form and meaning of prosodic patterns like those in Bedore's performance, feel free to disagree.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 13, 2006 07:17 AM