Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An ask to grind

Although my recent post might have used a needling tone in noting George W Bush's frequent glottal stops I do not intend to make a claim about phonology/phonetics as indicators of intelligence. That's the bailiwick of the language muckrakers. Those people who throw phrases like that's my biggest pet peeve or Oh! I hate it when people say that! into every conversation.

I'll admit it. I was once one of those. I would rail away on the usual subjects. different than, final prepositions, split infinitives, even flapping of intervocalic -t-. And sometimes that little red-penned devil perches on my shoulder and tries to goad me into a rant.

But halfway into the first chapter of any syntax or phonology or historical linguistics textbook and the peeves start dropping like flies. Nothing is so detrimental to the spirit of prescriptivism as learning how arbitrarily the loathed forms are picked for loathing. Not only is almost every word and much of the syntax of PdE the product of changes from former grammatical forms, there is a discrepancy in the attention given to different "mis"pronunciations. Consider some of the familiar foils. (I'll represent the alternations orthographically)


These are the subject of such lame late night TV type jokes as Of course Bush didn't find any weapons. How could he find any nuclear bombs if he can't even pronounce the word! I'm not quoting anyone with that quip but I can guarantee that some comic hack out there thought it was gold. (If David Letterman ever made the joke I take back the 'hack' accusation. If Jay Leno made it...well...)

I wonder why those words get so much attention while no one finds it necessary to jump and point every time someone says relator for realtor. And almost no one notices when someone says jewlery for jewelry or comfterble for comfortable. And if you are thinking of defending yourself by saying "I hate those too! I notice them every time!" you have missed the point of this post entirely.

Question: does anyone think that Agt Jack Bauer's pronunciation of "nucular" is intended as a comment on the silliness of deriding George Bush's same pronunciation? And didn't Secretary of Defense Heller say it as well?


  1. Well, in any language that picks a spelling from one language, a pronunciation from another, and then shifts the meaning to a different concept, it is a bit absurd to become worked up over little issues like these.

    There is a temptation by many to view language as a static construct, as opposed to a living, organic reflection of its living, organic users. It is a means to an end, and thus the only fundamental judgment that can be made is one of its success or failure in accomplishing its goal. The rest is merely degrees of elegance.

    That said, W's attempts to communicate are sometimes unsuccessful, though not because of his pronunciations. Both could perhaps be a reflection of a common issue, but I'm not informed enough of the necessary fields or the speaker in question to make a definitive statement. I must admit though, "inelegant" is an accurate description of much of the president's english speaking.

    While I'm sure you are familiar with the details of the stories, has some entertaining articles on the origin of dictionaries and spelling.

  2. I'm reminded of some obscure episode of the Family Guy (they're all rather obscure, aren't they?).

    Peter: Hehehehehehe, you said "Nuclear". It's "Nucular", stupid!

    He makes a good point, given that it is arbitrary, why not be just as dismissive in the opposite direction?

  3. Wait a second. Shouldn't the laissez faire attitude be placed on the spelling and not the pronounciation? I find it perfectly acceptable to expect consonants to be pronounced in the same order they appear in the word. Now if people want to spell the word nucular, that is fine.

    There are plenty of words that are now spelled how they were pronounced (metathesis, right?), so really, we need an organization to push the metathesized spellings of these variant pronounciations then everything would be on the level.

  4. Does anyone who doesn't speak Spanish pronounce Chipotle right? Maybe...

    AHHH I still need to watch 24...was this week the season finale or is that still coming?

    Have I mentioned I LOVE summer?

  5. "Does anyone who doesn't speak Spanish pronounce Chipotle right? Maybe..."

    Considering it's originally a Nahuatl word, there certainly are, or have been. I'd also be willing to bet there are some Castillian speakers out there who trip on it. Also there are plenty of people in the Southwest who pronounce it properly, although perhaps the Spanglish permeating the atmosphere detracts from that as an argument.

  6. Daniel: to your concern (if you choose to have one) I would simply advise patience. Many spellings and pronunciations will eventually align. But why would you insist (or just hope?) that 'nucular' be the correspondent spelling while completely ignoring 'iron'?

    painted rooster: If we are unwilling to allow some language change in borrowings then we have to go back to the original word (which Justin has reminded us is Nahuatl) and throw back in that 'L' that has been lost from the chil- root. After all we saved it in chili pepper why lose it here?

    While we're at it we should throw in the -c- that was lost from poctli (meaning "smoke").

    Are we going to start arguing that chipotle is annoying, considering that chilpoctli is an earlier form?


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