Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Nucular Option

Town Crier is upset that Bush "still can't pronounce the stupid word!"

Long exceprt from a Slate article by Kate Taylor {bolding mine}:
Changing "nu-clee-ar" into "nu-cu-lar" is an example of what linguists call metathesis, which is the switching of two adjacent sounds. (Think of it this way: "nook le yer" becomes "nook ye ler.") This switching is common in English pronunciation; you might pronounce "iron" as "eye yern" rather than "eye ron." Why do people do it? One reason, offered in a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary, is that the "ular" ending is extremely common in English, and much more common than "lear." Consider particular, circular, spectacular, and many science-related words like molecular, ocular, muscular.

Bush isn't the only American president to lose the "nucular" war. In his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine in May 2001, William Safire lamented that, besides Bush, at least three other presidents—Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton—have mangled the word.

In fact, Bush's usage is so common that it appears in at least one dictionary. Merriam-Webster's, by far the most liberal dictionary, includes the pronunciation, though with a note identifying it as "a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable." A 1961 Merriam-Webster's edition was the first to include "nucular"; the editors received so many indignant letters that they added a usage note in the 1983 version, pointing out its "widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and at least one U.S. president and one vice president." They even noted its prominence among "British and Canadian speakers."
and she also cites in full Webster's standard response to readers who complain about listing nucular as an alternate pronunciation {again, bolding mine}:

We do not list the pronunciation of "nuclear" as \'nü-ky&-l&r\ as an "acceptable" alternative. We merely list it as an alternative. It is clearly preceded by the obelus mark \÷\. This mark indicates "a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable." A full description of this can be found in the Guide to Pronunciation on our website at We are definitely not advocating that anyone should use the pronunciation \'nü-ky&-l&r\ or that they should abandon the pronunciation \'nü-klE-&r\.

To say "the word is spelled (x), and therefore should be pronounced (y)" doesn't make any sense. Spelling is not a legitimate basis for determining pronunciation, for the following reasons:

1) English spelling is highly irregular. For example, "move", "dove", and "cove" are spelled similarly but pronounced differently. Likewise, "to", "too", and "two" are spelled differently and pronounced the same.

2) English spelling is frequently based on factors besides pronunciation. For example, the "c" represents three different sounds in "electrical", "electricity" and "electrician", but is spelled the same in all to show that the words are related.

3) Most importantly, spoken language is primary, not written language. Speaking is not the act of translating letters into speech. Rather, the opposite is true. Writing is a collection of symbols meant to represent spoken language. It is not language in and of itself. Many written languages (Spanish, Dutch, etc.), will regularly undergo orthographic reforms to reflect changes in the spoken language. This has never been done for English (the spelling of which has never been regularized in the first place), so what we use for written language is actually largely based on the spoken language of several centuries ago.

All of the entries in our dictionary (pronunciation, meanings, etc.) are based on usage. We have an extensive collection of files which date back to the 19th century. Language is changing all of the time in all respects, and any dictionary which purports to be an accurate description of the language in question must be constantly updated to reflect these changes. All words were pronounced differently at some time in the past. There is simply no scholarly basis for preferring one pronunciation over another. To not list all pronunciation variants would be irresponsible and a failure of our mission to provide a serious, scholarly, record of the current American English language.

I've encountered such metathesis often enough when studying dialectal variants, such as Galilean Aramaic.

I recall reading, a while back, an article by a nuclear physicist who stated that he and his colleagues pronounced the word "nucular." Cannot find it at the moment, though.

Also, I cannot imagine that Bush does not know that people criticize and make fun of his pronunciation of the word "nuclear." Surely his advisors know. So how come he has not modified his pronunciation? This should be easy enough to do.

I think that firstly, they know how it drives the liberals nuts, which might be reason enough to do it. (To cite the Jib-Jab song: You can't say nuclear, that really scares me.) On the flip side, Bush is great at appearing down-to-earth and folksy, where his opponent John Kerry had a problem with seeming elitist. With this pronunciation, Bush identifies with his base in the Midwest and South. They think: "He's one of us!" I believe this issue was likely discussed and his advisors recommended that he keep the pronunciation.

Secondly, as stated earlier, this is a (regional) dialectal difference. (Think of the famous line from a Brooklyn fan when baseball player Wade Hoyt was injured: Hert's Hoyt!) His opponents have made a big deal of it, that this shows that he is ignorant. To change now would be to reinforce the idea that it is in fact a totally incorrect pronunciation. And, while admitting you are wrong when you actually are wrong and when it really matters is a good thing to do, it is not necessarily the smartest thing to do when you are not really wrong, when it does not really matter, and when your opponents will seize upon this to make you look foolish.

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