Reince Priebus contributes to intonation research

« previous post | next post »

After seven rounds of balloting, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee is Reince Priebus (Jeff Zeleny, "G.O.P. Elects a New Chairman as Steele Drops Out", NYT 1/14/2011). My reaction is a parochial one: as a linguist interested in prosody, I'm looking forward to Mr. Preibus's contributions to the study of English intonation.

In the tradition of English intonational description that goes back to Henry Sweet, Harold Palmer, and Roger Kingdon, the contours of the tonic syllables of tone-units have come to be called "nuclear tones". There are various inventories and taxonomies of these patterns — thus David Crystal ("The analysis of nuclear tones", in L.R. Waugh & C.H. Van Schooneveld, Eds.,, The melody of language: intonation and prosody, 1979) discusses seven ("Low fall", "High fall", "Low rise", "High rise", "Level", "Rise-fall", and "Fall-rise"), and alludes to others (e.g. "fall-level", "rise-fall-rise").

The question of how to characterize these patterns remains a subject for debate: What are the tonal "atoms" that make up these contours, and how do they combine? What are their dimensions of quantitative variation? For example, American linguists since Pike have generally preferred to decompose rises and falls into sequences of level targets. Other recent approaches have decomposed local regions of pitch contours via orthogonal polynomials or functional principal components analysis. In any system, it's natural to wonder whether the "high" and "low" variants of rises and falls are really qualitatively distinct patterns or just parts of a pitch-range continuum.

The most important difficulty is the lack of any intonational equivalent of psychological "word constancy". If you promise a class of elementary-school kids that the first one to raise a hand when you next say "chickadee" will get a dollar, you can expect some arguments about whose hand went up first, but not about whether you said the word; in contrast, if you offer a reward for flagging your next "high rising nuclear tone" (of course exemplifying it rather than naming it), you'll get confused looks at first, eventually replaced by plenty of arguments about whether you produced one or not.

For similar reasons, it's hard to trust phonetic studies of intonational categories whose data is produced by asking laboratory subjects to pronounce particular contours. But the distribution of English intonational patterns in natural speech seems to be roughly as non-uniform as the distribution of words; and so some contours are less studied than others just because they're usually less common.

This is where Mr. Priebus comes in. Judging from his remarks after being elected the new chair of the Republican National Committee, he's a reliable source of the "level" nuclear tone, which is otherwise somewhat difficult to find. [Update — the CNN link has succumbed to bit rot — here's an AP youtube link that has some but not all of the cited audio…]

A few examples pulled out for ear training purposes:

I hope that this will turn out to be a stable feature of his rhetorical style.

[Update — his campaign video is also enriched in level nuclear tones, e.g. here:

Of course, the fact that there's apparently a lower pitch target just before the tonic syllable may suggest a different analysis to some…]


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    More striking to my ear than pitch is Priebus's stretching out of vowels for tonic emphasis: paaarty, for example. I've always heard that as a marker for upper Midwest topolect. A friend of mine talks about her girlhood in Faaargo. Scandinavian influence, maybe?

    [(myl) I suspect that those vowels wouldn't sound quite so long to you without the level pitch — his [ar] region (from the start of voicing to the flap) is about 220 msec., which doesn't seem to me to be outside the normal range of lengths for comparable regions in emphasized phrase-final words (though I don't have numbers at hand).]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    Sounds like nearly all the Scandinavians from Minnesota that I know — real Prairie Home Companion types. Yes, his pronunciation is immediately interesting and striking, and worthy of phonological research. But I want to know where he got his name. As soon as I saw it in the newspaper this morning, I was struck by the rarity of both his given name and surname; I've never encountered either before.

  3. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Reince Priebus contributes to intonation research [] on said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    […] Language Log » Reince Priebus contributes to intonation research – view page – cached After seven rounds of balloting, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee is Reince Priebus (Jeff Zeleny, "G.O.P. Elects a New Chairman as Steele Drops Out", NYT 1/14/2011). My reaction is a parochial one: as a linguist interested in prosody, I'm looking forward to Mr. Preibus's contributions to the study of English intonation. […]

  4. Ben said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    So far these comments are confirming (or are at least in line with) a general hypothesis of mine, that folks from outside the Great Lakes region don't hear the difference between the two main Great Lakes dialects — Inland Northern and Upper Midwestern. To those of us from the Great Lakes they sound completely different. Conversely, I confess that after eight years in New York City I sometimes confuse New York and Boston dialects, even though to North Easterners they sound nothing alike (and are indeed quite distinct, more so than Inland Northern and Upper Midwestern).

    I'm not helping get the thread onto the topic of the post. Sorry.

  5. Sili said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    Sounds like nearly all the Scandinavians from Minnesota that I know — real Prairie Home Companion types.

    Completely flat prosody is certainly a marker of Danish. (One that I cannot seem to rid myself of.) We even blame Swedes for sounding 'sing-song'.

  6. Scott said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

    I have to agree with Victor; the new RNC chariman's name is rather odd. I actually first parsed it as "Prince Reibus" when I first saw this post. Does anyone know what language or ethnic group his name stems from?

  7. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    Without checking, I'm wondering whether his first name is pronounced the same as the French city of R(h)eims.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    Does he sound like Hubert Humphrey to anyone else? (Although Humphrey was a bit more dynamic.)

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    He can be a helpful reminder of the new mnemonic: "I before E except after word-initial R."

  10. Sili said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

    Except it's /raɪns/ not /riːns/.

  11. Valentine said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

    Are you sure it's [raɪns] and not [ɹaɪnts]? Wikipedia isn't always the best source.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    Following what Sili said above about Danish and Swedish: even within Scotland, the flat prosody of Edinburgh contrasts with the sing-song of Glasgow less that 50 miles away. I knew a boy who moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh, responded to a "thank-you" from a teacher with a friendly "it's a pleasure" in his Glasgow sing-song, and was reprimanded by the teacher for sarcasm.

  13. Sili said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Are you sure it's [raɪns] and not [ɹaɪnts]? Wikipedia isn't always the best source.


  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    I did the same thing as Scott. When I glanced very quickly at the first headline out of the corner of my eye, I thought it said "Prince Reibus" (actually, I thought it said "Prince Rebus", which really made me wonder!).

    Seriously, though, with all the vast resources of the Language Log readership, can no one give us the slightest clue about the derivation of the name of the chairman of the Republican Party of the United State of America? Did his parents make it up out of whole cloth?

  15. Paul Kay said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    FWIW, Jeff Zeleny in yesterday's (Jan 15) NY Times:

    “My name is Reince Priebus,” he said, slowly saying his given name, which rhymes with pints (like pints of his favorite beer, Wisconsin’s own Miller High Life) and his family name (PREE-bus).

    “I know it’s a tough name,” Mr. Priebus said. “That’s what happens when you have a Greek and a German for a parent — you get a name like mine.

  16. language hat said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    Reince is a rare family name; there was a sixteenth-century Parisian of that name (Nicolas Reince) who was secretary to cardinal du Bellay, Bishop of Paris, so it may be French in origin, but Lexilogos knows nothing about it ("Le Nom de Famille REINCE est introuvable dans notre fichier des porteurs nés entre 1891 – 1990"). Priebus is the German name of what is now the Polish town of Przewóz, on the border with Germany (there is a German village called Klein Priebus just across the border), so it's an ordinary German toponymic family name.

  17. Chris said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    Even after a fair amount of exposure to this name over the last day or so, I remain utterly incapable of seeing it and NOT reading "Prince Riebus" … a multi-word metathesis. I know the slips of the tongue folks have studied this kind of thing. I assume it has something to do with the high frequency prince out-activating the low frequency name. I'll be interested to see how often news casters and pundits accidentally say Prince over the next year.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

    Nobody else registered it as "Prince Rebus," even for a second?

  19. Peter G. Howland said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 3:09 am

    Of course it’s really silly to make fun of other people’s names (it’s not their fault!) but when a newly minted national figure has a difficult-to-pronounce name for most AmE speakers, it’s worthy of comment.
    I had seen the gentleman’s name in print on several occasions over the past few weeks, but had not yet heard it pronounced, so I tried to figure it out for myself. And what I came up with was:
    Reince = [ray-een-say] or [rain-say]
    Priebus = [pry-ee-bus] or [pry-bus]
    Oh, how wrong one can be! And with no clear “rules” for what to do with the /rei/ and /rie/ business, how can one possibly know?
    BTW, if you have “a Greek and a German for a parent”, what are the nationalities of the *other* parent? Perhaps better/clearer “…for parents”.

  20. Hermann Burchard said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    The name Priebus, as in the town (suburb) of Klein Priebus mentioned in his comment above by "language hat", is of Sorb or Sorbian origin, a Slavic remnant language, see Ethnologue:

    This language is still alive in the Lausitz refugium and has experienced a revival of sorts in recent decades, but the people identify themselves as Germans (part went to Poland after WWII), I think. Perhaps Reince is from the same linguistic pool.

  21. Maureen said,

    January 20, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

    Apparently his actual birth name is Reinhold. Reince is his nickname, which became his legal name. Like "Babs" or one of those.

  22. Reince Priebus contributes to intonation research | tonycreary said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    […] Source: […]

  23. ohwilleke said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    Interesting. My first thought, looking at his name, was that he was a relocated person from the South, perhaps New Orleans, and that the name was French. But, hearing him speak has disavowed me of the thought that he is a Southerner transplanted.

  24. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    Getting back to the actual content of the post, his intonation reminds me of those TV preachers. It's like a "preachy" tone—one which Sarah Palin also tries to use, though she can't quite pull it off.

  25. Libbie Coca said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 2:36 am

    Thanks for these guidelines. One thing I should also believe is that often credit cards presenting a 0% monthly interest often attract consumers together with zero rate of interest, instant authorization and easy on the net balance transfers, however beware of the number one factor that can void your current 0% easy neighborhood annual percentage rate and to throw anybody out into the poor house fast.

RSS feed for comments on this post