January 03, 2004

You say Nevada, I say Nevahda

President George W. Bush has a language problem. At least, people who don't like him see this as a point where he's vulnerable, and they keep the journalistic spotlight focused on it, just as people who didn't like President William J. Clinton kept the spotlight on what they saw as his vulnerabilities.

In both cases, I find that the intense scrutiny makes it hard to evaluate the issues. The focus on Clinton's "Whitewater" transactions seemed so wildly out of proportion to the facts, and so clearly motivated by political animus, that at a certain point I simply starting ignoring the whole sordid business. Throw in a few tens of millions of dollars worth of high-powered investigators with subpoena powers, and you can cast a few financial shadows on anybody -- or so I reckoned.

I've started to feel the same way about Bush's linguistic miscues. You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage. It's even easier if the critics use anecdotes based on the perceptions and verbal memories of equally hostile listeners. And the whole thing has crossed some kind of line when you can make the AP wire by citing him for using a widely accepted pronunciation, like Nevada with the stressed vowel of cod instead of cad.

It's interesting to read through Slate magazine's list of Bushisms, which Jacob Weisberg has turned into a small industry over the past four years. Some of the citations are from broadcasts or other recordings that are subject to checking: "Kosovians can move back in."—CNN Inside Politics, April 9, 1999. Others appear to be journalistic anecdotes of uncertain authority: "Keep good relations with the Grecians."—Quoted in the Economist, June 12, 1999; "If the East Timorians decide to revolt, I'm sure I'll have a statement."—Quoted by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, June 16, 1999.

It's possible that W. applied a culpable consistency in the derivation of ethnonyms. It's also possible that he made one mistake of that kind, replacing Kosovars with Kosovians, and some journalists started kicking it around over drinks -- "wow, I wonder if he thinks the Greeks are the Grecians" -- "I bet he says Grecians" -- "I heard that he said 'we need to keep good relations with the Grecians'" ... Anyone who thinks this couldn't happen needs to pay some attention to what journalists do to quotes even in friendly contexts, or how completely false stories -- like the notion that Bush was pictured holding a plastic turkey in Iraq last Thanksgiving -- get created, picked up and discussed even in the case of fully recorded events.

In many of the other cases, the cited examples seem well within the range of expected human error. Which of us could stand up to a similar level of linguistic scrutiny? Robert Beard, the CEO of yourDictionary.com, is a highly educated man and a trained linguist. He writes clearly and forcefully, and he's won many teaching awards, so I'm confident that he speaks well, though I've never met him. Given his training and his career choices, I'm sure that his English word knowledge and spelling abilities are far above the norm. Still, his four-paragraph note to me about presidential pronunciation problems contained three potentially embarrassing typographical errors. The first error was a switch of their and there, which he caught and corrected when I asked him for permission to post the note on this site. The other two errors were missed in his no doubt cursory proof-reading, and I didn't notice them either before I posted what he wrote. He has "spectogram" for spectrogram, and he cited the president's "agregious solecisms" when he meant to write egregious solecisms. I'm absolutely certain that Bob knows how to spell spectrogram and egregious. These were slips of the fingers, though perhaps slips guided by sound patterns, as such things often are. In another context -- in a note from George Bush, for example -- a hostile observer might take such slips as evidence of linguistic ineptness.

Bonus dormitat Homerus. Let's accept that W is no Homer, and move on.

Since that's not likely to happen, I have another idea. I'll buy dinner for Jacob Weisberg, if he'll let me record a couple of hours of convivial conversation about speech and language, and then examine the transcripts carefully for Weisbergisms ...

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 3, 2004 08:33 AM