December 30, 2003

Does "Locklear" really rhyme with "cochlear"?

Richard Lederer, "the author of many books about language and humor", is the proprietor of the site Verbivore. He writes a widely-reprinted column Looking at Language, which I stumbled over while researching a recent post on presidential pronunciations. The piece that I found, oddly titled "A Nuke-Yoo-Lur Proliferation Theatise," was in the online archive of the journal Boomer Times and Senior Life ("A Monthly Magazine Serving Senior Adults of South Florida since 1990"), Feb. 2003, Volume 14, Number 2.

Mostly the article seems to be about how scary it is that our current president pronounces nuclear the same way that Dwight D. Eisenhower did. I find it somewhat comforting, myself, but whatever. I also pass over in silence the column's title, except to ask: "theatise?"

The point that I want to focus on is Lederer's contribution to the analysis of the stigmatized pronunciation of nuclear. He cites a NYT article by Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, as follows:

"Sheidlower ... observes that the -ular combination is a common pattern in English -- circular, muscular, particular, vascular and the like -- while -lear is heard only in rare words such as likelier and cochlear (and, I'll add, Heather Locklear)."

Huh? I don't have any special expertise in the pronunciation of Heather Locklear's last name, but I've always assumed that it has two syllables and rhymes with "mock year", not with "cochlear" (which has three syllables). Awaiting confirmation or correction, let me suggest that Mr. Lederer, despite being known as "Conan the Grammarian," may be having trouble with the difference between spelling and sound.

If remediation is indicated, I suggest the exercise of rendering (passages from) Gerard Nolst Trenité's poem The Chaos into the International Phonetic Alphabet, as I ask the students in Linguistics 001 to do each fall.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 30, 2003 05:15 PM