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Justin Sink, "Santorum denies making a racial comment on welfare", The Hill 1/5/12:

Iowa runner-up Rick Santorum said Thursday that he would be "a much bigger player" than expected in the New Hampshire primary and denied saying that he didn't want "to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money."

Santorum allegedly made the controversial comments when discussing welfare in an interview Wednesday night with Fox News, but he maintained that people misheard the word "black" when he stumbled on a word.

“I looked at that, and I didn't say that. If you look at it, what I started to say is a word and then sort of changed and it sort of — blah — came out.  And people said I said ‘black.’ I didn't," Santorum said.

Here's the passage in question:

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Santorum: They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you
dependent upon them so they can get your vote.
That's what the bottom line is. I don't want
to- to make
((black)) people's lives better by giving them
somebody else's money —
I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money
Audience: Right.
Santorum: and provide for themselves and their families.

Here's how Senator Santorum explained himself to Bill O'Reilly:

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Santorum: I- I looked at that
and I didn't say that.
Uh if you look at it what I- what I started to say is a word and it sort of changed and it sort of bleugh came out and
people said I said "black", I didn't. No one in that audience
and I've talked to a lot of people …
O'Reilly: No we looked at it, and it is a little blurry …

Here's a close-up of the phrase in question:

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It is indeed "a little blurry" — in particular, the vowel seems closer to [ɑɪ] as in "Bligh" than to [æ] as in "black". Senator Santorum's explanation is also a little blurry — he tells us that "what I started to say is a word and it sort of changed", but he doesn't tell us what that word was.

One plausible theory is that he started to say "black" and used the vowel in "lives", as an ordinary sort of anticipatory speech error, perhaps enhanced by a sudden doubt about whether it was a good idea to bring race into the discussion. I don't see any other obvious source for the [bl] part of what he said. He offers "bleugh" (sp?) as a candidate, but that's not the sort of thing that we hear him sprinkling randomly through his stump speeches.

But when a public figure says something indistinct that might be interpreted in a politically damaging way, and then denies the damaging interpretation, it seems reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt.

More coverage here, here, herehere, here, hereherehere, here, here, here.


  1. D said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    Would be more believable if he hadn't defended the statement before denying it:

    'But Santorum addressed the comment during an interview Monday with CBS News, telling the network that he had seen the quotation but didn’t know the context of the statement.

    “If you look at what I’ve been saying, I’ve been pretty clear about my concern for dependency in this country and concern for people not being more dependent on our government, whatever their race or ethnicity is,” Santorum said in the interview.'

  2. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    Sounds to me as though Santorum's saying "blind people". Just as bad politically.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    I've listened to the original passage and the close-up each about 10 times. When I listen to the former, it sounds flat out like "black" to me. When I listen to the close-up, it sounds as though he's on the way to saying "black", but that he realizes he's making a boo-boo and attempts to alter it in mid-course, though he's talking so fast that he can't fully apply the brakes in time, and so it comes out slightly garbled.

    Perhaps we could impose upon Mark yet again to provide one of his sound spectrograms of the word in question and analyze the closure of the syllable.

    [(myl) Here's a spectrogram of the "((black)) people's lives" phrase:

    The light red oval marks the place where a velar articulation would be expected to show the second and third formants coming together in a "velar pinch", a clear version of which can be seen in his pronunciation of "black" in the O'Reilly interview ("people said I said 'black' I [didn't]"):

    This doesn't really add much to the perceptual evidence, I think, which indicates a clear [k] in the second case but not the first.]

  4. Ben said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    I think this is obviously a case for "Miracle Max":

  5. jfruh said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    I have a really hard time reading the word as anything other than "black". Of course, once you listen to it repeatedly you can say, well, the vowel is funny (though it doesn't sound that different from the other ways his vowels sound a little off to me, so maybe that's just his dialect), or he doesn't quite enunciate the "k" at the end, but I think any English speaker hearing that casually with no preconceptions would hear "black."

    It's true that sometimes one will just lose control of one's language and sort insert a nonsense syllable like "blah" in the middle of a sentence — I've definitely done it. But what makes me think that isn't what's happening here is that Santorum doesn't stop or slow down the sentence as a result to get his footing back as I'd expect. Though maybe people who are seasoned political speechmakers are good at pushing through those sorts of neurological misfires without skipping a beat?

  6. Kris said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    I agree with Victor. It does sound like he may have been starting with black, and in mid-speech, he caught himself.

    I have certainly done stuff like that before when talking to someone and realizing that what I was about to say might be inappropriate. In particular, I grew up using the word "retarded" to mean dumb, but have since tried respect that many find it offensive. But sometimes it just comes out like an old habbit, and I need to catch myself before I finish.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    If indeed he did not intend to say "black," I think it would be reckless to accept his own explanation of the foul-up at face value. People are notoriously bad at accounting for that sort of thing and may offer ad hoc explanations in the belief that some explanation is better than none at all.

  8. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    Does Rick have a history of making racially charged comments? That might help us estimate the probability that he meant to say "black" rather than some other word.

  9. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    As to whether he did intend to say "black" and then changed his mind, I doubt it. If we remove what seem to be minor tics, as well as the mystery word, we end up with this:

    I don't want to make people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money – I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.

    To me, that does not look impromptu. It's too balanced, too crafted. If so, I find it hard to understand how "black" would creep into it. A pause, a stammer, a nonsense syllable — this is the kind of stuff you get when you inject a scripted talking point into an unscripted dialog.

  10. Jonny Scrum-half said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    I'm not a Santorum supporter, but I have no doubt he didn't say "black." First of all, it wouldn't make sense in the context of his remarks, in which he was saying that the government was looking to get "you people" (the almost exclusively white audience) more dependent on it. To reference "black people" at that point would have been a non sequitur.

    As to what he did say, from watching the tape I think he was intending to say (as he ultimately did say) "people's lives," but had a verbal mix-up and started to say "lives" before "people." Simultaneously he tried to correct his mix-up and inserted a "p" sound just as he began to say "lives," which came out as "pli …." He then stopped, restarted, and said "people's lives."

    Unfortunately for him, it sounded as if he said "black people," which has led to a lot of unimportant discussion while the media avoid much more important issues.

    [(myl) This hypothesis has the merit of explaining where all of the features in the putative slip-of-the-tongue came from — "people" and "lives" got muddled up together into [blɑɪ] or something of the sort. And I agree that the previous reference to "you people" points away from a reference to a group not represented in that room. On the other hand, the putative slip happens to correspond closely to a standard conservative talking point. This might be a rare case of a genuinely "Freudian" slip, i.e. one where below-the-surface lexical or semantic associations subvert the speaking process.

    What I think is the most interesting part of the whole thing is that Santorum rejects what he was perceived as saying, even though other current candidates (such as Newt Gingrich) are enthusiastically owning exactly the same sort of statement.]

  11. mpsa said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    Yet, there is the fact that the *very* next day he was asked about that quote and, instead of trying to deny it, he said 'he might have been responding to a discussion he was having about the Davis Guggenheim documentary "Waiting For Superman," which, according to Santorum, "was about black children."'

    In another interview yesterday he says "And I can tell you, I don't use, I don't, first off, I don't use the term 'black' very often. I use the term 'African-American' more than I use 'black."

    But he uses 'black' all the time.

    So why are you saying we should we give him the benefit of the doubt again?

    [(myl) Because (1) the phrase is clearly misarticulated, indicating some sort of speech production problem; because (2) he explicitly denies that this is what he meant to say; and (3) because I'm in principle opposed to beating up on politicians and other public figures over what may plausibly be construed as slips of the tongue. ]

  12. dw said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    For comparison, here's a prevoius sample of Santorum saying "black" in a relatively casual style:

    at 0:36-0:38

    To be fair to the ex-Senator, I hear much less "velar pinch" here than in the controversial segment, which suggests that maybe he didn't mean to say "black" (or at least changed his mind half way through). Although, as ML says, it may also have to do with the phonological context: "black man" here versus "black people's lives" in the controversial segment).

  13. Paul said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Is it plausible that he started saying "lives" and corrected to "people's lives"? That's what it sounds like to me, and the "velar pinch" in the spectrogram looks pretty much as similar to the end of the diphthong in "lives" as it is to the instance of "black" in the second spectrogram. He precedes the error with something which sounds to me a bit like [ʔm], which could just be some sort of hesitation. This would make the error start with something like [ml], which those of us who have English-speaking ears hear as [bl] because that's the nearest thing which is a legitimate onset in English. Even if I'm wrong about the [m], extracting a bit of the sound so the [l] has a sudden onset could cue the perception of a weak labial, much as (nearly) happens when you add a silence in between the [s] and [ɪt] to make "sit" sound a bit like "spit".

    When people cut off errors mid-word they're much more likely to come in with the repair with minimal delay – this is why it sounds like he doesn't stop or slow down to get his footing back (as jfruh comments above). Sieb Nooteboom has suggested this may be evidence of errors being spotted in a pre-articulatory phase of speech production but just too late to stop the articulators from actually doing something. Nooteboom used tongue twisters and the like to force errors, but I've seen the same correspondence between interrupted errors and speedy repairs in a corpus of spontaneous speech too (see

    Despite the British media's obsession with American elections, I know very little about politics in the USA and I know nothing at all about the background of this particular politician. But simply judging on the phonetics, I'd say there's a fair way to go before we can say this is some sort of Freudian slip rather than simply a slip such as we all do now and again.

  14. Paul said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    (sorry – Jonny Scrum-half's comment must have appeared while I was typing, so some of what I suggested has already been put forward)

  15. jfruh said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    @Jonny Scrum-half — hmm, the "you people" angle is definitely worth considering. It's also worth considering that skilled conservative politicians (of which I suppose Santorum is one) are generally good at talking about black people without actually saying "black". Newt Gingrich says "housing projects," "inner city," "food stamps," etc., words that he knows a middle-class white audience will associate with African-Americans (the correctness of that association is of course arguable).

    Basically, I guess the biggest reason to question whether Santorum really said "black" is that it would be such a painfully maladroit thing to do.

  16. Mags said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    Part of Santorum's 'defense' also includes his assertion that he almost never refers to that particular ethnicity as 'black', preferring instead to call them 'African American'. As a corpus person, my immediate thought upon reading that was, 'I wonder if I can get my hands on a bunch of transcripts of Santorum's speech to check that out.'

  17. mpsa said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    The following day on CBS, after being shown the video, Santorum said:

    “I’ve seen that quote, I haven’t seen the context in which that was made,” Santorum told Pelley. “Yesterday I talked, for example, about a movie called, um, what was it? ‘Waiting for Superman,’ which was about black children and so I don’t know whether it was in response and I was talking about that.” Santorum went on to say: “If you look at what I’ve been saying, I’ve been pretty clear about my concern for dependency in this country and concern for people not being more dependent on our government, whatever their race or ethnicity is.”

    His next-day response to the quote was about race. (also note his use of "black" here despite the obviously sensitive context)

  18. Elliott P. said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 1:40 pm


    I don't see how his next day's remarks are condemnatory. He was shown the short clip, but didn't know what the context was. He incorrectly guessed that it was the Waiting for Superman discussion, when blacks were indeed discussed. When he got more information/context and could pinpoint what interaction that clip was from, he knew that he didn't say blacks at that juncture. So he never admitted to anything, mpsa.

  19. Peter said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    I listened to the clip before coming to the comments, and arrived – unprimed – at exactly the same judgement Johnny Scrum-Half did: in attempting to say “people’s lives”, he started with a strange co-articulation “pli…”, noticed halfway, backed up, and started over.

    So why are you saying we should we give him the benefit of the doubt again?

    It seems more politically and intellectually honest to attack things that it’s clear he actually meant to say, rather than seize on one where there’s at least some doubt. It’s not like there’s any shortage of the former to go for…

  20. teucer said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    I don't think there's a fully-articulated [k] there, and the spectrogram agrees with me.

    But the spectrogram also implies there may be some [k]-ward movement going on, and so I am inclined to believe he said "black" and didn't enunciate it clearly enough for this to be 100% certain.

  21. jtradke said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    Here's a clear video of this incident:

    To me, it looks and sounds like he's saying something more like "mla-". I don't see or hear much of a plosive at the start of that word.

  22. tpr said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    A couple of observations that haven't been made so far:
    1. In the video of the controversial quote, you can see (and hear) that whichever microphone picked up the audio couldn't have been particularly near him (not on his lapel or in his hand), whereas he's wearing a lapel mic in the O'Reilly interview. As a result, higher frequency sounds in the controversial audio will be more attenuated than in the O'Reilly audio, which might be a factor in the distinctness of the velar pinch.
    2. Have a look at this weird parallel in the disfluencies that surround the word black in the alleged and real cases:

    I don't want to- to make [brief pause] ((black)) people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money

    I find it almost remarkable for a- for a- for a black man [unnatural pause] to say "No, we're going to decide who are people and who are not"

    The latter is from the video @dw linked to above. Of course one would need more examples to compare, but the video with "for a" coming out three times before he can bring himself to say black makes me wonder if speech disfluencies might be a typical feature of references he makes to black people (possibly due to hypersensitivity rather than racism).

  23. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 7:06 pm


    FWIW, Rick Santorum and I are roughly the same age. He's a bit older. (I have no idea how old you are.) Kids my age grew up with parents who used words like colored and Negro, but we were acclimated by the times to say black. Later we were reeducated to say African American. I still say black in some contexts, but use AA in more formal contexts, like when I'm teaching.

    I can easily imagine someone my age stumbling over the "correct" word to choose in front of the media. Maybe that's what you mean by hypersensitivity; maybe it's something else; maybe it doesn't apply to Santorum at all.

  24. Bobbie said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    The Republican Party presidential candidates are providing plenty of sound clips that may haunt them in the near future.

  25. fourmorewars said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

    Is it at all relevant to a speech expert whether or not there is a single other example of an individual having a verbal 'bluh' moment when public speaking? Said expert might reply exasperatedly, 'so I'm supposed to listen to dozens of Santorum speeches/debate answers/whatever, in order to prove this negative?'

    And I'd say, well, no. I'd just like to hear an expert's opinion on whether verbal glitches, like the one Santorum is claiming, normally ever just 'happen' once and never resurface, or if it's the case, as this skeptical observer believes, that public speakers either fall into the category of someone who stumble-mouths like that frequently, or they don't. And I'd like to hear him/her opine on whether, absent a tendency by Santorum to regularly stumble like this, that it's a telling moment.

    The going-over the available online Santorum speaking would then fall under the charge of his campaign and his fans, to try and show he's ever spoken like this, letting a full nonsense syllable fall out of his mouth in the middle of a sentence. I frankly think his explanation couldn't be more preposterous.

  26. Janice Byer said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    For sure, he didn't say he wants not to make people's lives better by giving them public monies, only certain people's lives did he say he doesn't want to make better that way, and therein lies an unmistakable offense against American values.

    Of course, compared to all that he's clearly said, it's nothing.

  27. Janice Byer said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

    …the values of equality under the law and due process, to be precise.

  28. Joyce Melton said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    I dislike Santorum and do not doubt that what he appeared to say may have been at some level what he thought, but I really doubt he meant to say it. He's a better politician and speaker than that. People misspeak all the time, even excellent public speakers do. I hate to cut the man any slack at all, I dislike him that much, but he deserves as much as anyone else in this situation.

    It may not be Freudian but it certainly is ironic.

  29. Aaron Toivo said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 2:46 am

    @Joyce Melton: I'm with you on that; Santorum horrifies me, but if we can't stick to criticizing the statements he does endorse, we don't get to complain when a public figure we like better gets the same treatment from others.

  30. tpr said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff,

    Yes, what I meant by hypersensitivity is a heightened awareness of negative consequences that might result if what you say comes out the wrong way. I can easily imagine disfluencies being associated with delicate subject matter because of this increased awareness, like a pianist who fumbles when they pay too much attention to their hands.

    I'm in my 30s, but more importantly, I have never lived in the US, so the term African American doesn't really apply. In Britain, Australia and Germany (countries I have lived in), the word black (or Schwarze(r) in German) is politically correct. How do Americans refer to black people of historically African descent who aren't Americans but British or something else?

  31. Spectre-7 said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 8:27 pm


    How do Americans refer to black people of historically African descent who aren't Americans but British or something else?

    As African Americans just often enough for it to be hilarious.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    @tpr: "Black" is still acceptable here in the U.S., contrary to an unfortunately widespread opinion among non-black people. Usage is similar to Spell Me Jeff's is fairly common.

    Of course Spectre-7 is right. My mother swears she once heard a National Public Radio announcer refer to Nelson Mandela as African American.

  33. Dakota said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    I'm surprised that no one has called Santorum on the content of the speech.

    If you listen closely to the video, Santorum says "Medicaid". Medicaid is not "welfare". And there is no "Department of Public Welfare". There is DHS, Department of Human Services. Welfare went away back in the 90's during the Clinton administration. The program was called TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

    Caseworkers from the old TANF program were diverted to a program called KidCare, which attempted to provide medical services to all school age children. The family would be enrolled in Medicaid, and the entire family could get medical services on a sliding scale based on family income. Cash payments were made both to families that showed receipts for medical expenditures and directly to hospitals on behalf of clients who had not paid their medical bills.

    And yes, inspite of what Glenn Beck and Stormfront say about "black", it is still very acceptable usage in the U.S., just ask your black friends. One recent twist I have seen in local neighborhood publications is that "Black" is written in upper case, while "white" is written in lower case.

  34. Nathan Myers said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:25 am

    To me the most compelling argument for taking it as an innocent slip is that I never hear bigots say "black people". They say "blacks".

  35. Kevin said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

    The error consists of two separate anticipatory errors: (1) He pronounced the [b] in "better", (2) then the [li] in "lives". The [i] sound is rounded as in "lie" and is deliberately stopped, leading many to infer a "k" sound that didn't occur. Neither Santorum nor most of those present heard the word "black", as the immediate context offered no reason to interpret it that way.

  36. Tim Martin said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    Regardless of what Santorum actually meant to say, I've just gotta say I'm a little surprised by this:

    "But when a public figure says something indistinct that might be interpreted in a politically damaging way, and then denies the damaging interpretation, it seems reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt."

    Denial of a damaging interpretation is exactly what you would expect a public figure to do, even if they *did* mean it that way. You cannot use something as evidence when it can be evidence for both A and ~A.

    As for Santorum specifically, he says that he started to say a word, *but he never tells us what that word is!* Seems like that should be easy enough, and yet he doesn't do it. Sorry Dr. Liberman, but for me this leaves too little doubt to give the benefit of. Santorum is trying to bullshit us, as politicians do.

  37. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    […] Language Log, more Santorum shenanigans went on as Mark Liberman considered “blah” people. Mr. Liberman also examined political speech errors; “g-dropping” in songs and life; the […]

  38. Word Soup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    […] and it sort of — blah — came out.  And people said I said ‘black.’ I didn't.” Mark Liberman at Language Log asserted that what Santorum said sounded more like bligh, and that perhaps Santorum “started to […]

  39. Jenn said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:33 am

    Late to the party here- but I genuinely don't believe Mr. Santorum said or meant to say 'black'. As some others have said, my immediate conclusion upon hearing the clip was that he started to anticipating saying "lives" before "peoples", realized that wasn't what he wanted to do, but the words started to come out anyway. He probably got a bit confused by all this and slipped in a bit of an "um", resulting in: "uh- -b [almost starts to say "people" which was the word he intended to come first], [then got blocked and confused again] -um-lives-peoples-lives"

  40. Neuroskeptic said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    I'm very late to the party indeed but I just thought: could he have been trying to say "blight" as in "blight people's lives"? Maybe he had two sentences mixed up:

    I don't want to make people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money…

    I don't want to blight people's lives by getting them dependent on welfare…

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