NUCULAR.

I would like to thank Don Blaheta, a linguistics grad student at Brown, for posting an explanation of why “people who persist in going on and on about how dumb the President is for being unable to say the word ‘nuclear’” are wrong. As he says,

There are excellent linguistic reasons why people (and it’s a whole lot more people than just the President) do this. The process is called metathesis, and it is one that happens in many languages. It tends to happen where the reversed syllable ends up making the word easier to pronounce—in the case of “nuclear”, the standard pronunciation has a front vowel between two back vowels, but the metathesised version has all back vowels. Another commonly-cited example in English is the word “comfortable”, where the T and R are switched, allowing the following schwa vowel to drop out entirely and reducing the word to three syllables. Crucially, this is a regular phonological process affecting speakers of many languages, and not something that is indicative of intelligence.

Well said, and the next time I get into a discussion of the matter I’ll just point to your crystal-clear statement.
Update. Don is now (June 2008) an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and he revisited the “nucular” issue in 2005.

Comments

  1. Is metathesis really the best description of what’s going on here? It seems more like anaptyxis to me, with I dunno maybe a compensatory syncope.

    Anyway, I would complain about you spoiling our fun at the expense of the president, but really it doesn’t matter how he pronounces that one word; he has an amazing talent for sounding stupid no matter what he says.

  2. “…it doesn’t matter how he pronounces that one word.” Exactly. If that’s all you have on the guy, you don’t have anything. If you have more important stuff, why stoop to this? I have relatives who talk that way, and you may too; I just plain don’t like making fun of nonstandard linguistic usage in order to put people down.

    I think I’ll get you and Don together:
    “Metathesis!” “Anaptyxis!” “Metathesis!!” “Anaptyxis!!” Nothing like a good old-fashioned linguistic dust-up…

  3. I find it difficult to understand why the pronounciation that is primarily based on the combination of two very familiar words (new clear) is seen as more difficult to pronounce than the combination of one familiar word and one ‘nonsense’ word (new kyular).

    Perhaps this prounounciation is not an indication of stupidity, but it’s definitely indicitive of intellectual laziness (which our incurious C-average president has in spades), along with a dollop of just folksiness that is supposed to reassure the populace that he’s not one of the liberal elite.

  4. Maybe it’s that I haven’t lived in America for very long, but I’ve never heard anyone say “comf-trouble” (hope I am correctly constructing this mispronounciation). Are there any other extant examples of this phenomenon I can cite, the next time I “get into a discussion of the matter”?

  5. Geegaw: it’s “comfturble”.

    Don Blaheta: a regular process??

  6. Anton: “Regular” not in the sense of ‘predictable, always occurring’ but in the sense of ‘unsurprising, nothing out of the ordinary.’ Metathesis is one of those processes (like haplology and aphaeresis) that is of frequent but not predictable occurrence.

  7. Just a note, Don’s a grad student in Computer Science and is just getting an A.M. in Linguistics on the side. :-)

  8. Yeah, “regular” was maybe not the perfect word there; as languagehat said, I just meant “unsurprising, common”.

    As for “anaptyxis”, I’ve never heard of it and don’t have time at the moment, so it may well be a more correct term, but I’m pretty sure this is at least one type of metathesis.

    I’m actually slightly surprised that someone hasn’t heard the “com-fter-ble” pronunciation before, I thought it was pretty much universal. Another common one is “ree-luh-tor” for “realtor”; other changes that aren’t metathesis but similar in their commonness are “offen” for “often”, “wensday” for “wednesday”, and “febyuary” for “february”. All of which I specifically remember commenting on when I was little—that they *weren’t* pronounced right, and with well-educated adults saying that the spelling didn’t matter, it was still “offen”, “wensday”, and “febyuary”. Different adults in each case, too. :)

  9. Yeah, but it’s still irritating. :-)

  10. I’d vote for “intelectual laziness”. However it hardly applies to Bush. Yes, I have converted:-)

  11. Anonymous says:

    I would vote for intellectual laziness too. Usually, you expect higher standards of behaviour, higher degree of verbal intelligenece from the heads of states (that they often aren’t is beside the point). If it were a single and solitary example that would have been a different issue. He makes mistakes in almost all aspects of English language pretty regularly. That is why people suspect that it is symptomatic of something deeper than an just a quirk. Oh well…

  12. I would vote for intellectual laziness too. Usually, you expect higher standards of behaviour, higher degree of verbal intelligenece from the heads of states (that they often aren’t is beside the point). If it were a single and solitary example that would have been a different issue. He makes mistakes in almost all aspects of English language pretty regularly. That is why people suspect that it is symptomatic of something deeper than an just a quirk. Oh well…

  13. Actually, I have a feeling that Bush has something like a verbal equivalent of dyslexia. Some dyslexics have auditory/speech problems, but most are very able speakers and rather poor readers and spellers. It would be interesting to find out about Bush.

  14. *sigh* As a speaker who says both “nue-cue-lar” and “comfterble” I feel somewhat sad that it’s almost always attributed to laziness or lack of education or folksiness. I’d say it’s a matter of dialect, not unawareness of the “proper” form.
    For what it’s worth, I have a doctorate and do know how to _write_ “properly — boy, did my students know this! On the other hand, my dad grew up saying “warsh” and “crik” and despite his efforts to correct this — he was his family’s first generation to go to college (and get a doctorate, no less) — such language still comes out under stress. He’s passed some of his verbal tics on to me — why should I be ashamed of this?
    (There are many problems with Bush — I just don’t think his pronunciation is one of them.)

  15. The important thing is that we understand what he means. Nucular sounds like an action word such as a verb. Or it could be white ebonics. He is our leader not a scientist. I have no problem with this.

  16. I must disagree with Rana. It may be a matter of dialect, but that does not absolve one from correct pronunciation. I should hope that a (presumably) educated individual would make a concerted attempt to NOT mispronounce words.
    As far as “Dub-ya’s” pronunciation is concerned, I agree with Justin: it doesn’t much matter because Bush has an unparalleled talent for sounding stupid, no matter what.

  17. Chris: “nucular” is the correct pronunciation for his dialect if that’s what most people who speak it say. “Mispronunciation” does occur (usually when people know a word only from reading), but not for words that are a normal part of one’s dialect, and accusing someone else of it is generally pure snobbery.

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