Earlier today a number of news agencies (perhaps all of them, ever) reported on a video, in which Education Minister Christopher Pyne appears to call Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke the c-bomb after Burke interrupted his speech. Here’s a video of the incident:


The minister’s office quickly came out and stated that Pyne had used the word ‘grub’, rather than ‘c—’. Shorten’s office, too, stated that the Opposition Leader doesn’t recall Pyne using the term. Liberal haters across the country weighed in, and continue to do so, condemning the man for so casually and capriciously letting slip the most heinous word, salivating at the golden egg shat to them by this giant goose. At the time of writing, the hashtag #c—gate (without the dash, of course) is close to trending on Twitter. The moral outrage is palpable. Australians sit around their screens, listening again and again to that tiny sentence: “You’re such a ???” They convince themselves: it must be c—. It must be. After all, the footage is compelling. It really does seem like he utters the most expletive of the expletives. But there’s still doubt. It’s unclear. The audio isn’t quite perfect. Did C-Pyne really drop the c-bomb in Parliament… and get away with it!?

No. I’m afraid not. It’s too extraordinary to be true.

Phoneticians (linguists who study the sound systems of languages) use diagrams called spectrograms, which graphically represent intensity (volume) at different frequencies. Here’s the spectrogram of the complete sentence, as uttered in the recording by Pyne:

A spectrogram of Pyne's full utterance.

And if we zoom into the final—and now infamous—word:

A spectrogram of the mystery word.

See how the bottom two lines converge at the end of the word (the highlighted section of the image)? This shows that the mouth closed at the end of the word, consistent with the final consonant being ‘b’, as in Pyne’s claimed ‘grub’. Different speech sounds have different signatures in spectrograms, and this greatly resembles the signature of a sound produced with both lips touching. For comparison’s sake, here’s a spectrogram of me saying c—.

Even with my poor-quality laptop microphone, it’s very clear that the final consonant (which occurs above the ‘(s)’ in Time (s)) is a very different shape to that of the ‘b’ above. While the ‘b’ was much more bottom-heavy, the ‘t’ is much more dispersed, and doesn’t show the same mouth closure as above. This categorically rules out his dropping of the c-bomb, and support’s Pyne’s defense of his language. As for the first consonant of the word, what appears to have happened is that a brilliantly-timed cough from someone on the floor lined up with the start of the word. The cough appears to block out the ‘r’ sound, effectively deleting it. If you listen to it again, with the knowledge that the final consonant is a ‘b’, it sounds almost like ‘cub’ (‘g’ and ‘k/c’ are both pronounced identically, with only voicing distinguishing them: say Kate and then gate, and you’ll see). You think you hear ‘k’, then ‘uh’, and then our minds, with what little stimulus they receive, fill in the rest. And, in such a combative arena as Parliamentary Question Time, we’re bound to hear insults rather than pet terms.

Not today, friends. Not today. Looks like the hashtag will have to be updated; but #grubgate hardly has as nice a ring to it, does it?

(Thanks to Rosey Billington and Lauren Gawne, both from the University of Melbourne, for help with the phonetics).

EDIT: For interested readers, other linguists have also written about this incident, not without differences of opinion. Follow these links:

Simon Musgrave, lecturer in linguistics at Monash Univeristy.
Helen Fraser, forensic transcription expert

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