Wet power

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This youtube clip, with a caption that shows Michele Bachmann asking a crowd "Who likes white people?", has occasioned a fair amount of discussion:

(The original http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE4OPMmdPsg has now been declared "private" — I've substituted one from another site.)

Examples of people who took the captioned video at face value are here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, …

But the caption is wrong — what Rep. Bachmann said was clearly "Who likes wet people?"

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And the context, which was misleadingly edited out of the captioned clip, makes this especially clear:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Who like wet people? Yeah that's right. Because we have the god of the winds and the rains, don't we. We serve a mighty god.

A little on the pagan side, maybe, but not at all racial. And the ambient weather was indeed rainy.

The "white people" theory was promptly shot down yesterday afternoon on reddit, but it's still circulating.

Presumably the people who hear "white" instead of "wet" are used to monophthongal pronunciations of the PRICE lexical set, even before voiceless consonants — or at least are willing to attribute this pronunciation to Rep. Bachmann. They'd have to go along with some fronting and raising of the vowel nucleus as well.

For a brief discussion of the history and sociology of this issue, see e.g. Raven McDavid Jr., "The Language of the City", American Studies 1969, who notes

what seems to have become a standard Southern pronunciation (though it is not my own), the use of a long vowel instead of a diphthong in nice white rice (as well as in high rise, where I do have it), has never ceased to bewilder unsophisticated Northerners, even to the barbarous assumption that Southerners confused right and rat,

Whatever has been going on with these vowels in various times, places, and classes of the American South, we can be pretty sure that it doesn't include the Iowa and Minnesota of Michele Bachmann's personal history.

[I should note that David Bardash suggested that Rep. Bachmann might have said

“Who likes West people?,” as in, West Des Moines, where she was ...

This is hard to square with the acoustic record, in my opinion -- the vowel would be right, but it's not easy to lose an /s/ in that context, either in production or in perception.]

Update — Thomas Lane at TPM transcribes Rep. Bachmann in a different way after the "wet" part:

"Who likes wet people?" she asks, to cheers from the crowd. "That's right," she continues. "Because we have to gather the winds and the rains, don't we? We serve a mighty god."

He has "we have to gather the winds and the rains" where I transcribed "we have the god of the winds and the rains". Listening to it a few more times, I think I'm right and he's wrong. But then I would, wouldn't I?



16 Comments

  1. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    Seems to me that the captioning (cp. buffalax/autour-de-mondegreen) is doing most of the work here; many fewer folks would have heard "white" if not for the text.

    [(myl) Yes, I agree. It's for this same reason that in evaluating speech synthesis or speech coding, you should never listen to a passage that you're also reading (or have recently read).]

  2. Tony said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    "Who likes wet people" is a truly weird thing to say.

    I saw elsewhere that perhaps the band had "White People" in its name, but I can find no evidence of such a band. (If they do exist, perhaps they're drowned out by this story.)

    [(myl) Others who have looked -- for instance on the web site for the Spirit Midwest Christian Music Festival, where Rep. Bachmann was speaking -- also have failed to find any support for the theory that she was referring to the "White People Funk Band" or something similar.]

  3. Brian B said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Heck, even having read that she said "white people", I listened to the clip and it didn't sound like "white" at all to me. Agree that it requires some nonstandard listening to come up with that. Thanks for this post — I'd been hoping someone would figure out what was actually said.

  4. William Ockham said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    West Des Moines had pretty bad weather that day (Aug 5). The crowd was no doubt very wet. Bachmann's comment was pretty typical "speaker showing solidarity with suffering crowd" expressed in the language of Bachmann's religious culture. I am sure it sounds very weird and unexpected to most folks, but it was not likely to be misunderstood by the crowd. I would surmise that the crowd had been primed by a previous speaker thanking folks for showing up despite the wet weather. Besides, in farm country, it is hard to go wrong by praising God for the rain.

    I would transcribe what she said as:

    Who likes "wet", people?

    This is fairly clearly a "call and response" as you can tell by the crowd reaction (applause and a shouted "Hallelujah"). Bachmann responds to the "Hallelujah" with a "That's right".

    [(myl) I agree about the call-and-response, but if "people" were really vocative, I'd expect a final rise, as opposed to the fall that you can hear, or see in this pitch track:

    The idea of a vocative "people" is plausible from the point of view of the word sequence, but it doesn't seem right to be in prosodic terms.

    (Note that the lower region about a third of the way through "likes" is a pitch-tracking error...)]

  5. phosphorious said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

    I seriously can't hear anything but "wet" here. Interpreting it as "White" strikes me as a real stretch.

  6. Alain Turenne said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Through my (admittedly very thick French) ear, it filters as "Who likes wet, people?", with the final fall that suits people who don't expect the audience to disagree.

  7. Jason said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    Actually, I hear "white" rather clearly. I also hear "crater" for "creator." I also hear "Iowas" not "Iowans."

    I'd chalk it up to urban southerns lack of familiarity with Bachmann's accent.

  8. Ann said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    Thank you for parsing this. I watched the clip yesterday and thought she said "white," but when I listened, without watching, I clearly heard "wet." My conclusion: the captioning fooled my ears.

  9. Amy Stoller said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    When I played the clips in this post through my email client, I heard "white," but through my browser, I hear "wet." Clearly she means "wet," given the context.

    I hold no brief for Ms. Bachmann, but I do think she is entitled to be quoted accurately.

    I'm from New York, and don't think that accounts for what I heard in this case.

  10. Kylopod said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    With captions, you can get people to think they're hearing pretty much anything.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOgALTFzFbQ

  11. Jason said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    Actually on my home computer, it is clearly wet. Through my headphones earlier it sounded like white. Curious.

  12. blahedo said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

    It's "white" if I'm watching it (i.e. with the caption), but very clearly "wet" if I don't. Which is about what you'd expect, really.

  13. Mary Bull said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    Clicking on the video arrow in this post returns me the message "This video is private." I'm intrigued, though, and want to listen with my southern (Texas/Tennessee) ears, so I'm going to search YouTube itself for the clip.

    [(myl) An unedited video is here, from which I took the audio clips embedded in the post.]

  14. Mary Bull said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    Found it. Clearly heard "Who likes wet people?" and agree with Mark, also, that Michele Bachmann wasn't using "people" as a vocative.

  15. Mary Bull said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    @myl Thanks, Mark. I listened to the video you supplied me with — the one I found had edited out the sentence about "because we love the god of the winds and the rains, don't we" — and I clearly hear it exactly as you had analyzed it.

  16. LC said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    It sounds pretty solidly "Who likes wet people?" – and said in a way that sounds like she is riffing off of something someone else said earlier.

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