Commenting on the fact that the overall speaking rate in JFK's inaugural address was 96.5 words per minute, the second slowest in the past 60 years ("Inaugural Speed", 9/14/2010), Terry Collmann noted that that Kennedy had the reputation of being a fast talker, with his inaugural address specifically cited by one authority:
Certainly his Inauguration Speech was powerful in content but Kennedy also delivered it with a rapid rate of speech.
What's going on here?
First, it gets worse. Jean-Sébastien Girard noted that the Guinness Book of World Records has long featured JFK as a sort of world record holder in the speaking rate department:
Few people can exceed 300 words per minute. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was the most voluble public personality. In a December 1961 speech, he exceeded that limit. [translated from Le livre Guinness des records 94, ISBN 2-87761-053-5.]
After 20 years as the White House shorthand reporter, dealing with everything from Franklin D. Roosevelt's stutter (in search of the right word) to John F. Kennedy's burp-gun Boston twang, [Jack] Romagna is reasonably confident that his right hand can keep pace with any presidential tongue. The pace is quickening. Roosevelt's top speaking velocity of 200 words per minute scarcely winded Romagna, who can handle up to 240 w.p.m., or four words per second. But Kennedy has been timed in bursts of 327 w.p.m. Such sprints often come when the President skips over a prepared text to strike out on his own—as he did for 47 minutes this month before the National Association of Manufacturers in New York.
Eugene observes that "the 47-minute speech is only about 6,500 words (if I'm counting correctly), so that cannot be the average for the entire speech". Indeed: the speech is 6507 words, and if it really took 47 minutes, the overall rate would be 6507/47 = 138.4 wpm.
Of course, as Eugene notes, the reference is to "bursts". And as noted in "Conversational rhythms", 4/13/2009, a randomly-selected conversation is likely to have several 5-second intervals where the speaking rate is greater than 300 wpm:
And even more such intervals will be found if the two conversational sides are summed:
As you'd expect, there's quite a bit of individual and occasion-to-occasion variation in overall speaking rate ("Sex doesn't matter", 11/11/2005):
All measures of "speaking rate" gloss over the proportion of silent pauses (and audience reactions), and this can make a big difference, as discussed in "The rhetoric of silence", 10/3/2004.
But still, what about those Kennedy bursts?
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a recording of the whole 12/6/1961 NAM speech. The best that I've been able to do is a short and somewhat buggy QuickTime clip of his opening remarks, available at the UCSB Presidency Project site.
My transcript of this clip, with the bounds of speech and silence approximately indicated, is here. (Note that the clip apparently has some passages edited out, relative to the transcript on the UCSB site.) If you add things up, it comes out this way:
Total time: 86.158 seconds
Total words: 164
Filled pauses ("uh"): 12
Lexical words: 152
Total speaking time: 49.314 seconds
Total silence (and audience reaction) time: 36.844
Overall speaking rate: 114.2 wpm
Non-uh speaking rate: 105.6 wpm
Speaking rate, speech regions only: 199.5 wpm
Non-uh speaking rate, speech regions only: 184.9
Frankly, these speaking rates are rather on the slow side. In comparison, recall that during the presidential debate discussed earlier, John Kerry's numbers were an overall rate of 167 wpm relative to the official debate transcript (58% greater than JFK's 106) and a "net" rate (speech regions only) of 202 wpm (9% greater than JFK's 185). George W. Bush crossed the tape at an overall rate of 155 (48% greater than JFK's 106), and a "net" rate of 220 wpm (19% greater than JFK's 185).
Now a debate is different from an after-dinner speech. In particular, a debate has time constraints, so there's more motivation to speak rapidly. (A fair comparison would be the Kennedy-Nixon debate. We could see whether JFK talks faster than Nixon did, for example, and how both of them compare to Bush-Kerry.)
Anyhow, if JFK was really a fast talker, we haven't yet seen the evidence. I'm inclined to think that this whole thing is a "factoid": a falsehood that began with a fish story that Jack Romagna told a Time Magazine reporter toward the end of 1961 (or that the reporter invented and put in Romagna's mouth), and has been repeated, embroidered and amplified over the decades since then.
Language Log posts about speaking rate:
"Linguistic mens rea", 10/6/2005
"Sex doesn't matter", 11/11/2005
"The shape of a spoken phrase", 4/12/2006
"Sex and speaking rates", 8/7/2006
"Hungarian speech rate and the Tribunal of Revolutional Empirical Justice", 8/13/2006
"Guys are a bit gabbier in Dutch, too", 10/16/2006
"Regional speech rates", 10/13/2007
"Conversational rhythms", 4/13/2009
"How fast do people talk in court?", 3/21/2009
"Norwegian Speed: Fact or Factoid?", 9/13/2010
"Inaugural Speed", 8/14/2010