Kennedy Speed: Fact or Factoid?

« previous post | next post »

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.]

Eugene van der Pijll found the probable source for the Guinness entry: "The Press: Prodigious Pen", Time Magazine, 12/9/1961:

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


  1. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    Could there be something that is affecting people's perception of speech rate, as opposed to JFK's actual speech rate, that is at work here?

  2. John Lawler said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @ Mark Eli: Sure there is.
    Two factoids make a syllogismoid:
    a) liars talk faster than honest folk
    b) [insert name here] is/was a liar
    c) ∴ …

  3. Karen said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    @Mark Eli: Just as Southerners drawl slowly, Massachusettsians have a clipped, rapid delivery.

    That is, we've been conditioned to believe that. JFK certainly had (to my ear) a strong accent. That may well contribute to the "he talked fast" meme.

  4. Someone said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    @Mark Eli Kalderon:

    In my experience, people who speak more confidently and more forcefully seem to be talking faster. People who are less sure of themselves, or less sure of what they're saying, seem to be saying it slower, even if the actual number of words per minute is the same.

  5. James Kabala said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    I agree with maidhc in the previous thread – my mental image of Kennedy (and of his brothers as well) is actually one of a slow speaker with frequent dramatic pauses. This false claim seems strange to me. Anyone know if it ever appeared in an English-language Guiness Book of Records?

  6. groki said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    @Someone: ohIdunnoboutthat–but, huh: maybe … yeah!

  7. Linda said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    @James Kabala

    It's on p73 of the 1992 UK edition (the only one I own.)

    "In public life the highest speed recorded was a burst in excess of 300 words per min in a speech made in December 1961 by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963)"

  8. Faldone said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    If bursts count, Neil Armstrong's famous "a" took no time at all. This would be an infinite number of words per minute.

  9. Emily Bender said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    If I were looking for record-breaking speaking speeds, the first place I'd go is to an auction.

  10. j-g-faustus said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    @Emily: According to this
    the "world's fastest talking female" was clocked at more than 600 words per minute.
    But it looks like even the people in the TV studio didn't understand her at that speed, so I guess the speed record is more suitable for Guinness Book of Records than for any practical scenario.

  11. Sybil said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    I'm inclined to leave an ill-informed comment, despite my better urges.

    I've always felt some subset of New Yorkers "talk fast" after a couple of decades of acclimation. I used to think this was a Brooklyn thing, but now I think it's Borough-independent.

    People in NYC talk fast, and the ones who don't come from outside (came to NYC less than some number of years

    [(myl) It's possible that this is true, but it would be nice to see some evidence. My efforts at quantitative evaluation of such stereotypes have generally failed, e.g. "Regional speech rates", 10/13/2007. The trouble with stereotypes of this kind is that they're subject to confirmation bias as well as various other sorts of illusions.]

  12. Barrett D said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    Is there a speed difference across languages?

    Were European Discoverers talking faster than the indigenousness people they met?

    [(myl) It's not easy to compare speaking rates across languages. Words are not a good unit, since different languages pack very different kinds and amounts of information into words. Rates in "sylalbles per minute" mean something very different in a language with 200 possible syllables versus a language with 20,000 possible syllables. A similar problem exists for phonemes.

    See "Comparing communication efficiency across languages", 4/4/2008, and "Mailbag: Comparative communication efficiency",4/5/2008 , for some discussion; or the comparison between English and Chinese speaking rates in Jiahong Yuan, Mark Liberman and Chris Cieri, "Towards an Integrated Understanding of Speaking Rate in Conversation". ICSLP 2006.

    There are said to be cultural differences in conversational norms that would affect speaking rate in some circumstances. But this is not a difference between languages. And the evidence for these differences is not much better than the evidence for regional stereotypes like the fast-talking New Yorker. That doesn't mean that these ideas are false, just that they shouldn't be accepted without some probing.]

  13. Barrett D said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    I wish I could edit my post

  14. J Lee said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 1:39 am

    At least for the younger generation I think the character Mayor Quimby did a lot for the Kennedy trait at issue (among others).

  15. maidhc said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:40 am

    People in NYC talk fast, but they say everything three times, at least according to a comedy routine I remember.

    "No! No! No! Not like that! Not like that! Not like that!"

    I would agree with Emily. Probably the fastest talkers you would be likely to find would be auctioneers. But they are not "people in public life" and their speech is very stereotyped.


  16. John Cowan said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    I've listened to professional auctioneers a time or two, and in my opinion they are not speaking but singing. Once you switch gears to singing, you can be insanely fast and comprehensible at the same time: other Gilbert and Sullivan devotees will know what I mean.

  17. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 3:10 am

    I wonder if there might be *some* interval of time which might be especially perceptible in some way….

    It doesn't make a lot of sense to think that a person's average speaking rate over an entire speech would be especially attended to by listeners, necessarily.

    Neither does it make sense to think that a five second interval of time, or any other arbitrary length, is a special unit of speech that our brains are sensitive to.

    But it does seem to me that it might be likely that there is a certain range of time over which our brains *are* sensitive to speech rate. Is there any research into identifying what that might be?

  18. Henning Makholm said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    "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."

    I understand this to mean that JFK sprinted quickly through his 6500-word script (which is presumably what the historical record preserves) and then spoke extemporaneously for 47 additional minutes. Dividing the 6500 words by 47 minutes is neither here nor there.

    [(myl) He certainly didn't sprint through the portion of the script (assuming it's a script and not a transcript — a rate of 12 uhs in 152 words = 8% uhs suggests extemporizing rather than reading) in the recording on the UCSB web site. At his speaking rate for that passage, the 6507 words in the cited document would have taken him about an hour to produce — which is probably about the size of the time slot that he was given. It's not politically very likely that he would have gone on for an additional 47 minutes, or that the NAM members would have sat around for an extra 47 minutes while he did so.

    But there are several JFK press conferences and other clearly-extemporized recordings on the UCSB site and elsewhere on the web, so you could explore the possibility that he was especially speedy when not relying on a script, if you wanted to.]

RSS feed for comments on this post