McCain falls down on Spain

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There's been a great deal of discussion recently about Senator John McCain's position on Spain. In an interview with Radio Caracol of Miami, he engaged in a puzzling back-and-forth on the question of whether he would be willing to host the leader of the Spanish government at the White House, or perhaps even talk with him. I think that Josh Marshall's analysis is right:

Through some mixture of confusion and inability to understand the interviewer's accent, McCain was confused about who he was talking about and decided to wing it, assuming that the person he was being asked about was some other left-wing strong man from Latin America and answering with the standard boilerplate about standing up to America's enemies.

You can listen and come to your own conclusions — I've put a transcript with an audio link up here.  My contribution to the discussion is to draw your attention to an aspect of Senator McCain's intonation.

The first thing to note is that he uses a lot of phrase-final rises. As discussed in several recent posts, such rises are by no means limited to speech of young women. In the my transcript of the interview under discussion, during the policy-related Q&A, I've added the characters / and \ to mark rising and falling accents at the ends of Senator McCain's intonational phrases. (There's plenty of room for uncertainty about where to mark such boundaries, and I didn't do a very careful job, so you might want to try your own analysis — I don't think it'll affect the overall conclusions, though.)

Overall, Senator McCain has 21 phrase-final rises and 21 phrase-final falls.  That's 50% rises.

But there's a second point that's more interesting, I think. In the discussion of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba, he has 17 rises and 9 falls; but in the discussion about inviting Zapatero to the White House, he has 4 rises and 12 falls. (The difference is statistically significant, X-squared = 4.9471, p = 0.026, silly as it is to check in a case like this).

Why should he have 65% rising phrase-final accents when he's explaining specific foreign-policy positions about current events that he clearly understands very well, but only 25% rises when he's serving up "standard boilerplate" foreign-policy generalities, apparently to disguise the fact that he's not sure what is really being asked?

This might seem backwards, if you think that rises indicate uncertainty. But this pattern is interestingly consistent with some research done more than 15 years ago on the role of intonation in a University of Texas sorority.

In her 1991 dissertation "The Pragmatic Interpretation of English Intonation: Sorority Speech", Cynthia McLemore reported the results of an ethographic study of "recurrent intonational patterns in a … well-defined sociocultural group", namely a University of Texas sorority. She chose this approach so as to be able to "identify the interpretation of particular intonational forms with respect to text, context, and culture", based on the belief that

… the representation of intonational meaning is rather more abstract than previous work has found, with much of the interpretive burden placed on the particulars of context. That is, rather than representing speicfic emotional, interactive or text-related meanings, intonational forms have no inherent 'meaning': rather, they are diagrammatic icons interpreted in context according to the shared communicative conventions of speakers …

One of McLemore's chapters is devoted to the distribution of phrase-final rises, which she transcribes (following an earlier convention) as L*H. She observes that "In addition to conecting text, turns, and participants, L*H can be interpreted in more specific ways that depend largely on the topic or type of a discourse and its context of use."

One of the contexts of use that she examined in detail is a "somewhat ritualized speech event which is central to sorority culture — the weekly group meetings". In these meetings, she found a striking pattern of association between types of topics and types of intonations. Topics that are "unexpected or optional" — "new business" — were regularly produced with final rises. "Recurrent business" (like weekly or monthly awards) are generally produced with mid-level final accents. And "obligatory business" was mostly discussed with final falls — this "includes announcements about activities to which members are committed by the fact of membership or prior agreement; that is, it can be assumed that the response appropriate to the utterance is shared knowledge".

In Senator McCain's interview, when he's explaining his position on new developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba, he mostly uses final rises — just as the leaders of the sorority did in presenting "new business" in their weekly meetings. When he's laying out generic stuff about working with friends and standing up to enemies, ideas that every politician subscribes to under one interpretation or another, he mostly uses final falls — just as the leaders of the sorority did in presenting "obligatory business".

McLemore chose to do her ethnography in the relatively closed world of a sorority because "socio-cultural factors affecting intonational variation are not very well understood", and her earlier work on the intonational patterns of speakers in a small Texas town showed that even there, it was hard to study intonational function while controlling for variation in the "culturally grounded patterns of speech use and interpretation".  So it's interesting to find that Senator McCain's interview appears to replicate one of the patterns of intonational use that she documented in sorority-house meetings.


  1. Cephi said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 12:45 pm


    Stereotypes about speech intonation may be misguided
    McCain's speech supports linguist's theory of rising intonations
    McCain's "valley girl" speech


  2. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    If John Marshall is right and part of it is that McCain couldn't understand his interviewer, how is he going to understand fellow Americans with moderately thick regional accents? Or world leaders?

    That said, it's clear to me after listening to the interview that McCain simply didn't know who Zapatero is. That's just not acceptable. I can understand not knowing President Toomas Hendrik Ilves from Estonia, or King George Topou V from Tonga. But the leaders of major economic powers such as Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Fukuda, Merkel, Hu, Brown, Harper, da Silva, Medvedev, Singh…. these should be basic for any world leader.

  3. Matt Heath said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    @Matthew Stuckwisch: This is pedantic but since it's kind of language-y I thought I'd mention it. I don't believe the President of Brazil (assuming that is who you meant) ever goes by "da Silva"; he's always "Lula" or if formality is absolutely required it is written in full as "Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva" . Also if he were to use his last name it would more usual (by the standards in Portuguese-speaking countries) for it to be as "Silva" not "da Silva" (and that wouldn't be very helpful because it's a very common name and the president of Portugal is also "senhor Silva", although he is usually known by his by his other surname of "Cavaco").

    So not knowing who it referred to might be OK. Not knowing who "Lula da Silva" or "President Lula" referred to probably wouldn't.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    Matthew Stuckwisch: it's clear to me after listening to the interview that McCain simply didn't know who Zapatero is. That's just not acceptable.

    I'm not so certain. The original question asks about "President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero", which has got a couple of those extra names that Spanish people use — I certainly didn't know about the "Luis Rodriguez" part — and the whole sequence is said very rapidly (audio clip here). I can well imagine that Senator McCain knows perfectly well who Jose Zapatero is, but missed the name in this performance.

    Matthew Stuckwisch: [If] McCain couldn't understand his interviewer, how is he going to understand fellow Americans with moderately thick regional accents? Or world leaders?

    Presidents have aides and translators to help them with that sort of thing.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    Mr. Verb (or at least one of his commenters) thinks that the interviewer asked "what about Europe" rather than "what about you". Listen and see what you think. I don't hear any "-rope" syllable in there, though I admit "Europe" would make more sense in that context.

  6. Brian Hillcoat said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    Perhaps McCain, knowing that Spain is a monarchy, was thrown by being asked about " 'President' …… Zapatero".

  7. Karen said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

    I definitely hear "Europe". Over at Talking Points Memo they do too.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    Thank you for providing the audio snippet. I think that "Europe" is plausible not only semantically but phonetically. The interviewer is speaking very fast and not finishing all her words before going on to the next clause. I hear "Eur", ending with a kind of glide, rather than "you" which would have been shorter and more stressed if it was at the end of a clause. There is a very short time between "Eur" and the next word "I": the vowel (a shwa) which follows "Eur" blends with the r-glide, and the /p/ (which should close the mouth) probably becomes a barely audible Spanish voiced fricative before the diphthong of "I". I should add that if I had not first read "the president of Spain", I would not have recognized the phrase – her "president of" sounds like "personal" to me. Being faced next with the full name of the president before having completely processed the preceding sentence, I don't think I would have been able to give a reasonable answer either.

  9. Faldone said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

    I can hear the R but not the OPE. Presumably the interviewer speaks a Caribbean Spanish and there is a lot of final syllable dropping in Caribbean Spanish, particularly Cuban Spanish.

  10. Lazar said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    I think the interviewer is from Spain.

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    The interviewer, Yoly Cuello, is from Colombia.

  12. Some Guy said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    That audio clip sounds to me like "What about you, I'm talkin' about the person of Spain"

  13. Adrian said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

    She said Spain twice and Europe once.

  14. Troy S said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 3:56 am

    I'm not much of a Spanish speaker, but I spent 2 years in Puerto Rico, and to my ear, "Europe" was quite clear. This hasn't been exploited by the mass media, though, so I doubt much will come of it. It is embarrassing, though.

  15. Matt Heath said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 5:59 am

    @Brian Hillcoat: He isn't head of state, and in English it would be usual to call him "prime minister", but the official job-title of the Spanish head of government translates as "president of the government". "President Zapatero" is not wrong.

    Still maybe that confused him, but you'd think the number of times the interviewer repeated "Spain" might have set him straight.

  16. Rob Perez said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 9:54 am

    I hear Europe as well – the final syllable is definitely dropped/subdued, but it's there. In the context of Latin America (McCain's focus) vs. Europe (the subject of the interview in the time leading up to this question), it is more clear that this must be what she is asking. But I can see how he would hear "you," and I don't think it is unreasonable for him to have heard it that way. I agree that McCain didn't quite get that she was asking about the Spanish Zapatero all along.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    Also, it's entirely possible that McCain doesn't like the Zapatero government at all — an attitude satirized here four and a half years ago.

    To return to the topic, I wonder if McCain raises his voice when he composes his sentences in real time, so he doesn't know when they'll finish — whether to put a comma or a period –, while the boilerplate is precomposed (even if not word-by-word), so he knows where the end is\. However, this is probably not distinguishable from McLemore's interpretation.

  18. The Tensor said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 4:03 am

    When I first heard this story, I wondered if when McCain heard "Zapatero" he misheard/misunderstood it as "Zapatista”, and responded with a boilerplate pronouncement about being friendly with our friends and standing up to those who need standing up to. It would explain why he then expressed support for the president of Mexico.

  19. [links] Link salad for a busy Sunday | said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    […] Language Log on McCain on Spain — Some cool linguistics neepery concerning McCain's recent, very public confusion on the leadership (and location) of Spain. […]

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    September 25, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    Zapatero is the Prime Minister of Spain, not the President. His full title in Spanish is 'Presidente del Consejo de Ministros'.

    Then there is the question of the power relations in Republics between the President and the Prime Minister and their consequent relative fame. Like most educated middle class people I know the Prime Minister of India is Mr. Singh but have no idea what the name of the Indian Lady President is. And I live in Sri Lanka but can never remember the name of the Prime Minister (even though it's his second stint, having been Prime Minister in succession to the President's mother at the beginning of the decade). And I've no idea who the President of Italy or the Prime Minister of France are.

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