"Call in Language Log"

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Ann Althouse, "There's never been a day in the last four years I've been proud to be his vice president", 11/2/2012:

The Weekly Standard (linked by Drudge) thinks it has a hilarious Biden gaffe, but they've misheard/mistranscribed it. You have to have an ear for the "working class"-style mushing of syllables, but he's saying "There's never been a day in the last four years I haven't been proud to be his vice president." The boldface is spoken: I 'n' been.

IN THE COMMENTS: rhhardin says:

I've listened to the audio at 0.35 speed and it's a precise "I've."…

I disagree.

It's an east-coast kind of "n" … sort of almost "i uh" like the "no" in "uh uh."

rhhardin says:

"n" is voiced and there's no voicing in Biden's 've part.

I note that I grew up in Delaware and I feel I understand the implied "n." And rh gives us his slowed down audio with repetition. I've listened, and I hear a sound after the "I" that I'm sure is the negative. There's this southern Jersey/northern Delaware/Philadelphia dropping of a sound that I can her. There's a muddled verb after the "I" that I just know. Rh says "Call in Language Log," and I will send an email. I think they will believe me. And not just for political reasons.


There's never been a day I wasn't happy to oblige either Ann Althouse or Ron Hardin, and especially not both of them.

So here's an audio clip for the passage in question, with a little context:

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 a spectrogram of the critical region:

The audio for just the section shown in the spectrogram:

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What Mr. Biden says is darn close to "I been proud", but I think it's plausible that there's a reduced "ain't" in there, with the final /t/ deleted as it is in the preceding "las(t) four" — roughly

"I ain't been" == [ɐe.en.bɛn]

Zooming in on the spectrogram a bit, we see a bit of evidence for this view. The (magenta) formant transitions into the 120-msec-long consonant region between "I" and "(b)een" — and the resonance in its first 50 msec or so — are at around 1700 hz, which is about what we expect for an [n]. In comparison, the (aqua) transitions from the [b] into the vowel in "been" start significantly lower, at around 1330 hz — as we expect for a labial sound like [b].

And rhhardin is clearly wrong to state that

"n" is voiced and there's no voicing in Biden's 've part.

It's obvious from the picture above that the medial consonantal region in "I ?? been" is voiced throughout.

Of course, [v] is a voiced fricative — so could that region be [vb], as rhhardin believes, rather than [nb]?

It doesn't either look or sound that way to me, and there's certainly no evidence of frication in the spectrogram. But I think the point is far from crystal clear, since /v/ is often a "frictionless fricative", i.e. some kind of approximant.

What is clear from context, though, is that Mr. Biden means to say that he's always been proud to be Barack Obama's vice president — this is emphasized by the fact that he goes on to repeat (twice) "not one single day". So even if he slipped and said

There's never been a day in the last four years I've been proud to be his vice president, not one single day

rather than

There's never been a day in the last four years I ain't been proud to be his vice president, not one single day

this would only show that he's as capable of misnegation as (say) Henry Kissinger is.

On balance, though, I think that Ann is right and he used the correct number of negations, even if one of them was non-standard ("ain't") and highly reduced.

Update — as various commenters have noted, you might also construe Biden's auxiliary as an extremely reduced form of "haven't" or "hadn't".  This reduction is not entirely implausible, since the initial /h/ is often elided in reduced forms of "have" or "had" (sometimes spelled "of" or "ud" etc.); and syllable final /t/ is often elided (a phenomnon known as "t/d deletion", and present a few words earlier in Biden's pronunciation of "last"); and medial /d/ is often lost, with the flanking syllables merged (as in the version of "pretty bad" that sounds like "pre bad"); and similarly the /v/ of "have" or "haven't" can disappear or become just a bit of lip motion, as in the forms popularly spelled "woulda shoulda coulda"…

But what's left, in any case, is a very weak [en] or something along those lines. (In my opinion, IPA isn't all that useful as a description of highly reduced pronunciations that haven't been re-phonologized…)  If we looked over a larger sample of Biden's speech, we might be able to find a range of more reduced and less reduced forms with a similar underlying intent, and come to a conclusion about what that intent probably was in this case. But Ann Althouse might be right, that the negative auxiliary in this case has been re-lexicalized as something like a nasalized reduced vowel. or perhaps such a vowel followed by a coronal nasal consonant, just as e.g. a highly-reduced version of "going to" is re-lexicalized by many English speakers as the form commonly spelled "gonna".

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26 Comments »

  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    Is ain't non standard in AmE? CGEL (p1611) says:

    There is a long tradition of prescriptive condemnation of it. In BrE it is reasonably called non-standard, occurring (for example) in working-class speech but not (except jocularly) in academics' discourse; but in AmE it is more widely used and accepted in informal style.Educated American speakers use it not only in ordinary informal speech but also at times in writing.

  2. Lora said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

    It kind of sounds like it could also be a really reduced "I hadn't" rather than "I ain't." At least where I'm from (general mid-Atlantic area) this is a thing that happens when people are sounding folksy. Maybe that's just a misconception of mine, extrapolating from the small sample size of my family and friends, but figured I'd throw in my goofy two cents.

  3. David Morris said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

    I always advise my students and to (overseas-born, non-native-English speaker) wife to avoid phrasing anything in negative terms when there's a reasonable way to say it positively: "Every day in the last four years, I've been proud to be his vice-president" is utterly unambiguous, and can even stand elision to "I been".

    Question: how spontaneous was the quotation under discussion? Was it in a prepared speech, in which case I would have expected him to be a bit more careful, or an off-the-cuff comment?

  4. George Conk said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    I went to a Jesuit high school in Brooklyn graduating in 1963 – making me Joe Biden's peer. We had mandatory diction class – drilled to say things like "John Stuart Mill, by a mighty effort of the will, wrote principles of political economy" spoken "trippingly off the tongue – gentlemen!: insisted Mister O'Connell.
    A key element of the exercise was to drill out the extreme elision of the characteristic (mainly Irish) Brooklyn accent. Biden came from a similar linguistic culture. Like Biden I sometimes indulge slipping back into dialect. In that mode to say "There is not a single day I'n been proud to be his friend/son/ brother" would be very natural – and naturally understood.

  5. Lazar said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: It's non-standard for me; I'm a 20-something who grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and when talking non-jocularly with my family and friends, I don't naturally use "ain't" or its friend 3rd person singular "don't". But I have heard those forms from some educated peers of mine, so who knows.

  6. Rubrick said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    I heard it as "I'nmt". Which seems reasonable enough.

  7. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    @George Conk

    You (or Mr. O'Connell) left out a line!

    John Stuart Mill
    By a mighty effort of will
    Overcame his natural bonhomie
    And wrote Principles of Political Economy

  8. Sidney Wood said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 5:20 am

    Where I grew up in SE England, "ain't" was preferred (although condemned by everyone else). I clearly hear "ain't" in this extract, but reduced to something like "I (i)n bin". There's so much in life that condemners miss by being so busy condemning.

  9. Yuval said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    I'm with Lora on this. I thought it to be something like "I'd'n't", contracting "I hadn't".

  10. Ellen K. said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    It ain't just condemners, Sidney. I don't condemn use of ain't, and even occasionally use it myself, but it's not something regular, and not something I expect in a political speech, so, no, I didn't hear that as a reduced "ain't.

    I did, though, hear an N sound. Definitely. How I would have heard it first in it's original context, rather than in the context of this post, though, I don't know. It's possible I too would have misheard it as "I of" (that is, "have" reduced, but still two syllables versus "I've" as a one syllable word).

  11. krogerfoot said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    Ann Althouse is exactly right – and believe me when I say that I feel physical pain typing those words. Only Americans with antennae finely tuned to detect gaffes issuing forth from their political enemies would mishear Biden this way. Althouse admirably refuses to hear phantoms just to land a cheap shot on an opponent.

    It seems to me that the cadence, or rhythm, or what have you, transmits the negative in Biden's sentence. Or am I also hearing just what I want to hear here? The step between "I" and "been" would be a smoother and lower drop if he'd been saying "I've been" rather than "I'a'n't been," right?

  12. Chris Sundita said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    I agree with Lora & Yuval above that it could be a highly reduced from of "hadn't." I perceive a [d], some nasalization, then the [b] from "been."

  13. rhhardin said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    Thanks, Mark.

    I still hear it only as I've been, spectrogram evidence or not, which is why I need the spectrogram.

    You process audio into something that's in your repertoire of dialects, at least if you're not a linguist.

    Slowing down the audio is a first attempt at foiling automatic processing, but a spectrogram gets past it by going to another sense entirely.

  14. wally said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    I was wondering when Language Log would get around to discussing "ain't". I can remember in days of old its use being a big controversy, but I don't remember hearing it in a long time. For me to use it now would seem rather stilted.

  15. kcom said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    If you need a spectrogram to figure out what he said, I'd say he failed as a communicator in that instance. Maybe plenty of people in the mid-Atlantic states would understand, but his audience is national. I agree it's obvious from the context what he meant, but the words should reinforce the meaning, not throw it into confusion.

  16. Ruth H said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    I definitely hear an "n't" in the original video I watched on this. I am certainly no fan of Mr Biden's but I have to give him some credit here.
    I never associated it with ain't. I just thought it was an unpronounced hadn't, which is what would have been used in my area of the US, Texas.

  17. Tom said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    Just listening to it a few times (and not giving the Zapruder-film treatment to the spectograms and excerpts), it seems pretty obvious to me he's saying "I haven't" contacted to "i'vent" (with all but the "I" and "n" sounding almost under-the-breath).

  18. Jongseong Park said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    I picked up English in North Jersey and I'm prone to using forms like "I'ven't" in my speech, where a syllabic n inserted to an already contracted form is all there is to mark the negation. I remember wondering why this isn't used as a written contraction, at least one that is recognized by the dictionary. So other people don't use "I'ven't"?

  19. Mark F. said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    Jongseong Park — Oh, they do. There's just no standard way of writing that down. There are way more expressions that people routinely contract/reduce than are regularly written down, and often I think people don'r even realize they're doing it. If I'm talking quickly, "I haven't been there but" can come out something like "I yabm bin there but", but other times it does sound more like "I'ven't".

    OTOH, if I were talking at Biden's pace I think I'd have enunciated the "haven't" so it fell on the beat, and reduced the "been" a bit. So it comes across as more of a misnegation to me. But my accent is different from his.

  20. Michael W said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    I find it strange that when something like this comes up, it's somehow assumed that microphones are magic devices that can perfectly record speech. The fact that live audio is difficult to capture faithfully is never a part of the conversation.

    I know the video shows him nearly at the same distance throughout (assuming we're listening to the audio from the microphones in front of him, which we don't know) but even experienced public speakers don't always speak the way you'd want for every word to get heard clearly. Add to it that the video (in my view) clearly shows another word or syllable coming from his mouth.

    (Video is posted at Drudge for those looking for it.)

  21. Michael W said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Sorry, I mean the video's at the Weekly Standard (follow the link in the quoted text above).

  22. Joe Green said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    To me it sounds like "I'm't" (yes, m, not n) with the final t reduced to a glottal stop. This only goes to show that human interpretation of speech can vary wildly.

    What's odd really, given the context, is that he didn't *emphasise* "haven't", which was after all the point of that whole sentence. Why elide the most important part?

  23. Tom Parmenter said,

    November 4, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    My longtime companion and guide, William of Ockham, says there's no way in hell Biden would have said he hadn't been proud every day to be Veep for President Obama.

  24. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 4, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    @ Joe Green –

    [m] could be sandhi before the following /b/, no?

    And I think the intonation pattern is normal for a sentence of this type. You'd only stress the haven't (or in this case, more likely ain't), if you were contrasting it with some assertion that you hadn't in fact been proud.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    November 4, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    I definitely hear an n and nothing else between I and been. It is not a form I am familiar with.

    But I am surprised at the number of people who think this n is short for hadn't. The pluperfect has no place in this sentence. The standard form would have haven't been (echoing the earlier has been), not hadn't been which could only occur if the same tense had been used in the previous clause.

  26. un malpaso said,

    November 4, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    @marie-lucie: exactly, I agree! It's an elision that is pretty common where I come from (Atlanta, urban South), and in some forms it seems like it could occur in a lot of East Coast/Midwest casual speech.

    The phonetic effect is basically a lot like |a ae m bin| (the m being syllabic, the whole thing drenched in nasality from the m and slightly from the n in been.

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