I still recall the first time I visited this city, back in July of 1999. My friend took me to a hobby shop up in Mt. Lookout. I saw something cool, probably a 1:50 scale Millenium Falcon or something, and I asked how much it was. “Please?” asked the merchant. “Okay, um, please can you tell me how much this is?” was my response. My friend snickered. The man behind the counter glared at me. Little did I know the gentleman was just asking me to repeat myself. So it is only fitting, that I use that moment, as the jumping off point of observing language in conversation.

Fast forward to today. With many tools at our disposal to analyze language, what can we learn from a simple discussion? Simple being a relative term, let’s take the last day of the 3 day “Cincinnati Streetcar Debate.” My original goal of this was to use all three days, however with this being my first forray into transcription, 4 days of tedious typing, rewinding, listening and repeating, quickly shattered that idea. Instead what you see here is the final 1 hour and 45 minutes of discussion amongst Cincinnati City Council on December 4, 2013.

During this time, all council member gave their final remarks in hopes of swaying just one member in either direction so that a “pause” on construction would not happen. We all know what happened. And I’m not going to go into detail again, if you need a refresher, feel free to read this piece I wrote. Instead, I would like to break down the conversation. Our council commended our ability to make them accountable during the 3 days of debate. Well, I’ve got news for them, I’m just getting started.

As voters, we have to be really look between the lines when it comes to political jargon. It’s politics. It’s supposed to be confusing. That’s their goal, generally, to hide and bend truth so that public perception can be bent along with their will. To get “group think” working against you, you really have to be a horrible politician. Luckily, this is Cincinnati. So let’s look at all that jargon, and try to divulge some meaning shall we?

For starters there is the conversation as a whole. This piece should give you an example of just how long almost 2 hours of speech looks like translated into colorforms. It is the straight up conversation, and I assigned each speaker a color as noted by this key.
Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 12.34.16 AM

At 17,002 words it was interesting in itself. The piece points out the obvious, of course, that those looking to garner one more vote were talking the most. But what were they really saying? To answer this, I ran the entire transcription through Wordle, an online tool that aggregates the most common words and makes them larger based on usage. Normally this works like a charm. For example you could run Moby Dick through it and the final piece would state, Man Hunts Whale. It’s kind of a Cliff Notes for Dummies, if that’s even possible. So what turns up if I run all 17,002 words though? You get an image where “streetcar” is literally lost in the cloud.


Funny right? Now, it’s not totally fair that I left in some of these words, although I hope that by bringing this to light, our public speakers will become better public speakers. Modern language has long suffered form “Ah” “um” and it’s politically correct equivalent phrase “you know” (more on that later). Wordle does take out the more common words such as articles, prepositions and a few other things. So for the next few, experiments, I took some liberties and deleted the ahs, um, and other commonly used terms due to the formality of the proceedings (Mr and chair for instance). So what are the next few experiments? The individual councilmembers contributions to the conversation, isolated. Enjoy.


Councilmember Flynn was one of the surprisingly more eloquent speakers. And by eleoquent I mean he didn’t studder or resort to long pauses, or the use of “Ah’s” and “um’s.” This usually means that the speaker either has a well thought out dialogue, or is allowing their brain to structure a thought before their mouth blurts it out. Translation, a slow speaker. The lack of pause could be due to his low word count. Mr. Flynn, while considered someone “on the fence,” was also the least talkative, not even breaking the 600 word mark. That’s Smitherman worthy. He was, however, the most clear with his remarks. Stating “information” (wanting, need and lack thereof) being his reason for voting for pause, you can see that word being his most used.



Councilmember Mann is also considered by many to be the only other swing vote. The old Mann couldn’t see anyway around the costs of the project based on the numbers presented to him, so he’s reserving judgement until a newly appointed auditor gives him, well, probably the same numbers. Personally, I enjoyed leaving in “ah” “mr” and “president.” It makes for what I consider to be a pretty accurate portrayal of his speech pattern, but to be fair, I cut them out in an edited Top 25 words, where you can see that “cost” is a pervasive word and goes along with his #1 gripe. Ok, two for two so far.



Ann Murray surprised me. I actually thought she had the least amount of talking time. Turns out she spoke more than both Sittenfeld and Seelbach. However, what she was saying, is anyone’s guess. During this entire debate, Murray has been extremely tight lipped on her reasons for disliking the streetcar. Sure, the easy thing would be to hide behind costs, and her “fiscally conservative” nature. But if so, then say that, use your words. Instead, her most common phrases where “really,” “want,” “people,” “council,” “appreciate,” and a slew of others. There is one that stood out though and I had to go back and learn why. You may see the “know” all super big. But know what? Well, as it turns out, Amy’s favorite phrase is “you know,” which is a deflection meant to comfort the listener into thinking that the conversation is on equal footing. That everything being discussed is known amongst the two conversing parties. It’s a subconscious move, but sometimes it’s easier to make everyone feel, you know, like the information shared is obvious.



Seelbach_25 Edited
Oh Mr. Seelbach. I love ya buddy, but you are not going to be winning many battles these next four years. Your brutal honesty is refreshing, just be careful that it does not become you or your supporters downfall. You clearly speak from the heart, as your conversation was littered with pauses, ah’s and stutters. It’s unfortunate because we can literally see your frustration. It reminds me of the first time I experienced office politics, I was young and stupid. No friends were made, and while I may have been correct, no horse would hitch themselves to my wagon. Your shining light? Clearly you fight for the “people” as that was your word of choice.


Councilmember Simpson. What is there to say? Yvette put the weight of the supporters on her shoulders and like a good lawyer tried to deflect all the bullshit that had been flying around for days. So much so, that I really feel like her words became scattered in a sense. While she reiterated the obvious motion of “free money to do your damn study and keep on constructing” it was lost in the fact that she had to remind people of basic human rights, litigation and law for dummies. Considering her word count was nearly 1/6 of the total count over two hours, I’d say she did a pretty good job of limiting her ums. Her most common word is unfortunately a slang term, “gonna,” which a lot of people actually used. I debated for a bit as to whether I should change these to actual versus phonetical, but I think it’s one of those things we as a society need to be more aware of. We need less coulda, woulda, shoulda, and more “going to.”



P.G. is, in my mind, going to be Mayor after a successful recall election exactly one year from today. He was incredibly quiet on day three. Like Mr. Seelbach, I’m pretty sure he was just fed up with chambers, and just wanted to move onto the business of doing good for the city. He will do good for the city. Why do I know this? He makes sure to constantly challenge us to “think.”


I really wanted this character to tank. Hard. Unfortunately, he and his wife were up late the night before, clearly practicing his speech. Full of dramatic timing and absolutely no substance, Smitherman managed to get through his tale with no ah’s, um’s or stutters. He also managed to get through it by reinforcing his smug, better-than-though-next-level douche-bagginess, insulting all of chambers, the public, and viewers at home in the process, but hey, it was Oscar-worthy. What was his ode about? Why “thank”ing the “mayor” of course! I guess he should get points for both showing up to the meeting and not falling asleep this time. Now if someone could get him to talk about the issue at hand with relevance and not like a republican voting on Reagan’s Star Wars program we might be getting somewhere.


I really thought Winburn would get the award for least talkative, but that surprisingly went to Flynn (which I think may be a pattern these next four years). Instead Winburn gets the Best Bill Cosby Award. I swear to God at one point I thought he would whip out some Jello Pudding pops and hand them to all the “proud little kids councilmembers” who were growing up before his eyes. Not to be a Debbie Downer Mr. Winburn, but at least the other members of council don’t make “y’all” a pervasive part of their dialog when addressing a city on important matters. But you seem to also want to ignore the issue at hand anyways, and just talk about the new “mayor.”


Ah, Mr. Young. There are no words for what you tried to accomplish, so I’ll just let your words speak for themselves. “Ah, Mr. Chair, simply think.”



Finally, there is the Mayor himself. It’s hard to really justify exactly what is going on here. Cranley has to moderate, so much of his word count is due to that. He often times felt a need to deflect comments immediately after a supporter gave them, which only sort of muddied the conversation. His Top 25 is littered with phrases like “public want” and “chance speak.” The funniest thing is his word of choice is, know (no?). I guess that’s his right, he’s the moderator, mayor, dictator, what have you. I’d like to say that there is some meaning in his most common words. I’d like to say that there was a pattern that came out. But he is extremely well trained in his reserve and speech. You know who else was? G. Dubyah.

Now this was all well and fun, but I wasn’t really getting what I wanted. So I double-backed again and went through each persons dialogue. Much has been said of Cincinnati being “a city united” lately. Ok, Cranley has that on repeat. But is that really true? Is the council actually speaking like that? Well, in my final graphic, I summed up all the prior bits, and added a final data point. Exactly how often did a councilmember use I (I’ve, I’d, my, me) versus we (we’re, we’d, us, our)? The results? Well, I’m going to just put this right here.


I actually just listed everyone alphabetically, but have since realized that if you put their words into a conversation between two people, it’s actually quite humorous.
“Mr, ah, information cost, you know. People gonna think…”
“Thank Mayor”
“mayor…simply think.”

If you would like to download the transcription and have fun for yourself you can do so here. Perhaps my Engrish, PhD friends can shed some more insights.
The video I used to get these is from the city website, but you can also download a version here

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