John McWhorter unconfuses Bill Gates

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Sometime LLOG contributor John McWhorter is the featured guest on Episode 4 of Bill Gates' podcast Unconfuse Me.

The trailer:

The whole show is well worth your time.

As lagniappe, I'll add a small analysis of John's own language.

The clip used to start the trailer comes from the segment reproduced below, taken from around 19:14. John's prosody illustrates some of the interesting ways that spontaneous speech differs from read speech — for example, the silent pauses after the infinitive marker to, the preposition with, and the complementizer that:

With the academic books
that nobody reads, I'm trying to
advance the state of knowledge, and that's a slow, quiet
frustrating process. With
the books written for actual human beings,
yes, I am
sharing my fascination, because I think
language is more interesting that we're often taught. I think it's easy to think that
a language is a basket of words
and there's an order that you put them in
and most people don't speak it right.
That's easy to think
about how language works.
There's- there's a little more,
and I try to get it across
because I just enjoy it.

And the trailer's excerpt includes an immediately recognizeable John-ian pitch contour — at least a pattern that reminds me of him:

I could say more, but sufficient unto the day…


  1. Chris Button said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 1:17 pm

    Isn't the pitch contour just the usual "implicational fall-rise" (sometimes just rise) showing that there is more to come?

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 8:32 pm

    @Chris Button: "Isn't the pitch contour just the usual "implicational fall-rise" (sometimes just rise) showing that there is more to come?"


    In the first place, the contour of "A language is a basket of words" is a rise-fall-rise-fall-rise, with the stressed syllables having (very) low targets, and the peaks ending up on -guage, of, and the very end of words. I'm not going to speculate about the interpretation, but that's way more than would be needed to implicate continuation. (And one conventional inventory of English "tunes" asserts that such patterns should only be possible on yes-no questions, with continuation rises allegedly being "high rises" — though I think that theory has been thoroughly debunked by now…)

    The last two rises are 19.6 and 15.3 semitones, respectively — and that unusual range of modulation is what I perceived as John-ian (though I don't have more empirical support to offer beyond my subjective reaction…).

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 9:41 pm

    @ Mark Liberman

    I see what you mean about the unusal range of modulation.

    Regarding the implicational fall rise at the ends of the utternaces though, they do look like classic rise-falls to me–at least in terms of contour. They hit that nuclear tone on the last accented syllable ("words" and "put" respectively) and then either go back up on that same syllable when it is the last syllable ("words") or rise back up on the unaccented syllables that follow ("them in"):


    \put them /in

  4. Chris Button said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 9:42 pm

    * classic fall-rises, I mean (I said it backward)

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    December 16, 2023 @ 7:03 am

    @Chris Button:

    "Continuation rises" in English are quite variable. Here's an example from Bill Gates' side of the same conversation:

    There are four stressed and (presumably) accented words: "helps", "really", "good", and "teacher". "Helps" and "good" are high-ish level; "really" has a rise-fall; and the stressed syllable of "teacher" is about the same level as "good" (micro-melody aside), in the middle of the phrase's range, with the junctural rise on the following final unstressed "-cher".

    Overall that's different from the pattern in McWhorter's originally cited phrase, where the targets for the stressed syllables of "basket" and "words" are at the very bottom of his pitch range. And Gates' range of f0 modulation is 6-7 semitones, not 15-20.

    Sometimes, continuation rises are purely junctural, with the preceding pitch accents having high (rather than low) targets — here's an example from an audiobook:

    There the stressed syllable of "marriage" has a high target in the middle of the syllable, with a fall to the start of the following unstressed syllable, and a four-semitone junctural rise at the end.

    It would be interesting to survey a sample of continuation rises, in interviews and audiobooks and so on, and see what the distribution of patterns is like. My subjective impression is that the pattern in the original example (with bottom-of-range targets on the last few accented syllables, with following high targets and a range of pitch modulation greater than an octave) is by no means the default.

    And of course it's presumptive to assign the interpretation to the single category of "continuation", since there are other discursive, interactional, and sociolinguistic factors that are likely to be involved.

  6. Chris Button said,

    December 16, 2023 @ 8:37 am

    @ Mark Liberman

    Personally I'm not seeing anything particularly remarkable in either of the two new examples.

    … that it ˈhelps to `have a \really | \good | /teacher …

    ("helps" has its standard accent with a higher pitch than the unaccentable syllables preceding it; "have" is optionally accented with a slight fall instead of continuing the pitch of "helps", and its slight fall causes the perception of a rise-fall on the two syllables of "really" that is functionally just a fall on "real"; "good" is its own IP; "teacher" continues the rise on "teach" through "-er")

    … and ˈhad in consequence of her `sister's \ma/rriage …

    ("had" has its standard accent with a raised pitch after unaccentable "and"; consequence" is deaccented as standard so continues the pitch of "had"; "sis" of "sister" is optionally accented with a slight fall; "marriage" is two syllables so the rising component of the fall-rise occurs on the second syllable, but there is also a perception of rise-fall on the first syllable due to the optional falling accenting of "sister" )

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