Was it "people of colour" or "people of talent"?

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Jim Waterson, "Channel 4 apologises over subtitle error on viral Boris Johnson clip (Tory anger after tweet claims PM said ‘people of colour’ instead of ‘people of talent’)", The Guardian 12/6/2019:

Channel 4 News has apologised after a subtitling error wrongly claimed Boris Johnson had discussed whether “people of colour” should be allowed into the UK, prompting the Conservatives to accuse staff at the channel of being campaigners rather than journalists.

In a clip of the prime minister uploaded to Channel 4’s social media accounts, Johnson was captioned as saying: “I’m in favour of having people of colour come to this country but I think we should have it democratically controlled and have it done that way.”

In reality, Johnson said he was in favour of having “people of talent” come to the UK, and did not discuss race.

The falsely subtitled clip went viral on Friday, prompting Channel 4 to issue a correction: “Boris Johnson says ‘people of talent’ not ‘people of colour’. Our earlier tweet was a mistake. We misheard and we apologise.”

Some people who had shared the clip continued to wrongly insist the prime minister had said the word “colour”. This suggested it may be an example of people’s hearing being influenced by visual cues – similar to the known phenomenon of the McGurk effect. It also echoes the confusion at the end of last year over whether a voice in a short audio clip was saying the word “laurel” or “yanny”.

Here's the relevant video clip — the critical passage is at about 1:02:


And here's just the contested audio segment, in context:

And zooming in further:

I have trouble not hearing it as "colour" rather than "talent", but The Guardian and Channel 4 seem convinced that it was "talent".

There's a camera-click noise just at the onset of whatever word it is, and that may be giving the /k/ perception a boost.

The fact that BJ is speaking so fast, and is so fluently disfluent, has an impact as well. Here's my attempt to transcribe the whole clip:

every single one of our candidates has signed up to this deal
and they haven't been you know uh
dragooned they haven't been lob- lobotomized
but they're doing it- they're- they're doing it with- with- in- with ab- absolutely voluntary
from all- all wings of opinion
uh of our- of our- w- of our party
the huge spread of opinion
it- all they want to back this deal
and get brexit
done and it does everything that I think people want from brexit
it allows us to take both back control of our borders our laws
we can do things differently whether it's cutting VAT on tampons
or- or legislating- well it's true
you can't do them under EU law
you can't do it but we will be able to do it
we'll be able to do things like
uh legislating
uh to take away cruelty to animals at the moment
uh like banning the- the export of- of live animals which goes on
still British people campaigned to get that for decades will finally
be able to do it we'll have things like
free ports around the country
we'll be able to
uh do all things- all sorts of things differently and better and including
controlling our immigration system
for the first time
in decades and that will be a- a good thing I'm- I'm in favor of having
uh people of colour|talent come to this country but I think we should have it democratically
controlled be- and have it
done- done that way now all that we can do
if we get brexit done

That's 266 words in 70.327 seconds, for a rate of only 227 words per minute. It seemed faster to me, but I guess that's because there are some points where he gets stuck for words, mixed in the machine-gun syllable sequences.

For more on those rapid repetitions, see "Repetition disfluency" (8/15/2011) and "Dysfluency considered harmful" (5/19/2019).

Update 12/7/2019 — here's a clip from the BBC recording, which is indeed much clearer, in which the contested word does sound unambiguously like "talent" to me:

Since we've been looking at speech-to-text technology, let's see what a couple of systems do with that clip. I transcribe it as

… in decades.
and that would be a-
a good thing I'm- I'm in favor of having
uh people of talent come to this country but I think we should have it democratically
controlled and be- and have it
done- done that way now all

Google Cloud Speech-to-text gives us:

In decades now, we're in favor of having a people to tell her come to this country. If I think we should have examined practically control and be and have it done done that way now.

DeepSpeech gives us:

in decades now be a goody i am in favor of having a people of alencon his country we think we should any democratically controlled and be an habit done done that way not at


  1. JPL said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

    What about vowel quality?

  2. Robot Therapist said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 4:31 pm

    It is indeed like the Yanny/Laurel thing; I can make myself hear it either way.

  3. TACJ said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 5:30 pm

    Sounds like he's saying "people of calibre".

  4. Alex Billig said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

    A few related thoughts here

  5. cameron said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    I hear it clearly as "talent". The vowels of "colour" would be quite different in his accent.

  6. unekdoud said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    It's clearly "colour" for me. Without knowing his accent I'd assume "talent", "have", "having" and "democratically" would have similar vowels, but yet the vowel in the sample sounds closer to "colour" than the latter three. (Not ruling out the possibility that he meant to say one but then switched to the other, ending up with a blend of both words.)

    But perhaps that's influenced by the shutter sound too. Is there any hope of being able to cancel that particular noise out?

  7. Richard Gadsden said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 8:15 pm

    The reason they are so sure is that there are multiple other recordings (a BBC one and an ITV one, possibly others) which are notably better quality audio where "talent" is much clearer.

    He was using a handheld mic which all the broadcasters got a direct feed from, but it appears that BBC and ITV both had secondary mics that they used for noise-cancelling and C4 didn't. The original transcriber did not have access to their competitors' audio (for obvious reasons) and it is at the very least reasonable to come up with "colour" from the C4 audio alone.

    But the reason that reporters are now, hours later, certain that he did actually say "talent" is that (a) there is better quality audio available and (b) he appears to have used the rather odd phrase "people of talent" a lot in this context.

  8. Gabriel Faure said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 9:29 pm

    Is the turn of phrase "people of colour" even present in the register of English that Boris speaks? I perceive it as primarily belonging to American English.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 2:11 am

    I honestly don't know whether 'talent' uses the BATH vowel – which can sound a bit like AW if you don't have it yourself – I think they do it at random to baffle outsiders. But I would be very reluctant to try to predict whether a word would have it or not, without knowing!

  10. cameron said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 2:15 am

    The term "people of color" would be familiar to a British English speaker as a technical term in critical race studies, or related areas of Academia. Boris Johnson is well educated, but not particularly in that direction

  11. cameron said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 2:21 am

    @Jen in Edinburgh: "talent" is definitely on the TRAP side of the TRAP/BATH split.

    As I hear it, that first vowel is one of the things that makes it clearly not "colour"

  12. Sharon said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 3:41 am

    Has anyone ever heard Boris Johnson ever say anything as politically correct as "people of colour"?

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 4:05 am

    @Gabriel Faure, I believe the currently favoured term in the UK is "BAME" (for "Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnicity"), but there's an example of "people of colour" in today's Guardian newspaper from a Welsh author of black Caribbean descent.

    Offhand the only ethnic identifier (well, not exactly) that I can recall Boris Johnson using is "piccaninny", but that has to be balanced by the observation that being offensive makes it more memorable.

  14. Adrian said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    I'm surprised you're trying to analyse this by ear when other tools are available.

    [(myl) What "other tools" do you have in mind? Here's a spectrogram, with the relevant two syllables indicated by the red arrow, for that clip (which I transcribed as "uh people of colour|talent come to this"):

    Or we could try speech-to-text. Google Cloud Speech-to-text produces the transcript

    Are people in college?

    DeepSpeech produces the transcript


    None of that seems especially helpful to me — this is a case where human perception, fallible as it is, is hard to beat. ]

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 9:45 am

    No fan of Johnson, but “colour” seems impossible to me here. Firstly because it’s the TRAP vowel not STRUT; secondly because the phrase “people of colour” would be very surprising from him; thirdly, and least compellingly, because it would be strange to court such huge controversy from a winning position..

  16. Rose Eneri said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    AmEng speaker here. When I read this post, I could not imagine how "talent" could be confused with "color". Then I listened to the first recording and I too could not discern what Mr. Johnson said. But, the filtered recording makes it clear.

    My question is why does Mr. Johnson use such as odd phrase. Why does he not say, "talented people" or "people with skills we need?" I don't know of any other use of the phrase, "people of…" This fracas demonstrates the perils of using one.

    [(myl) Johnson has used the same phrase before — "Johnson’s japes fail to mask immigration concerns", Newsroom NZ 7/25/2017:

    The traditional OE to the UK has come under threat in recent years, with the government cutting visas for skilled migrants and introducing new income rules. Would-be emigrants have also complained about delays in processing their visas, leading to cancelled flights and lost money.

    In his former life as Mayor of London, Johnson expressed enthusiasm for the concept of a “bilateral mobility zone”, allowing New Zealanders and Australians to more easily live and work in the UK.

    He shared similar sentiments on Monday, telling media: "I don’t want to overpromise at this stage, but clearly it’s our ambition to continue to attract people of talent and we want to have a regime for New Zealand that is as free and open as we can possibly make it."


  17. The Other Mark P said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 4:31 pm

    My question is why does Mr. Johnson use such as odd phrase. Why does he not say, "talented people"

    My guess is that he is stressing that they are people first, and that only qualified by talent. He's trying to say that he's not opposed to immigration, and that his government will be open to immigrants. But that he's recruiting people, not talent.

  18. dw said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 6:41 pm

    In modern RP / Southern British English, the TRAP vowel can approach [a] and the STRUT vowel can approach [ɐ].

  19. Keith said,

    December 9, 2019 @ 4:58 am

    @Peter Taylor

    I've certainly seen the term BAME in text, but I'm certain that I've never heave anybody pronounce it in speech, neither as the letters B A M E nor as "bame".

    But the phrase "people of colour" was frequently used in the 1980s to replace the earlier term "coloured people" that had been deemed too pejorative.

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