January 06, 2004

Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech: two comments

As I write this, I am listening to the first "State of the State" speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the new governor of the State in which I live, and newest member of the Board of Regents of the university for which I work (in my day job at the University of California, Santa Cruz). I have two linguistic remarks to make about the speech. One is phonetic and one is semantic.

First, after this I don't want to hear anyone shooting their mouth off with nonsense about him speaking broken English. (During the campaign Gray Davis accused the governor of not even being able to pronounce the name of California correctly, as if slight lowering and backing of the vowel in the first-syllable and raising and fronting in the second were some kind of phonetic mangling. That was a real low point in American politics. Gray Davis actually got my vote -- because I didn't think that removing a sitting governor after 11 months in office was a good precedent -- but he didn't deserve it. He's a phonetic idiot, and the comment made him sound like a bigot.) The fact is that virtually no English-speaking Americans ever learn to speak a foreign language as well as Schwarzenegger speaks Standard American English. I would strangle a kitten to be able to give a speech in any foreign language with the fluency and clarity that Schwarzenegger has in my language.

Yes, he has a light (Austrian-)German accent: voiced dental stops for voiced interdental fricatives ("de" for "the", "dis" for "this"), occasional [s] sounds at the ends of words that would normally end in a [z] sound, and things like that. [Added later: on second and third hearings, there was also an incidence of nasality lingering from the [m] of matters through the voiced intervocalic flap, making "I will not make matters worse" sound like "I will not make manners worse." But this may have been an articulation slip unrelated to accent. No one seems to have picked up on it or misunderstood it. I don't believe it was an eggcorn, and anyway, those are very common even among native speakers.] But this is spoken English of high quality, indubitably fit for public speaking. Anyone who can deliver a speech that well should be proud of their communication skills. Any further attempts by politicians and journalists to accuse Schwarzenegger of being a pidgin-speaking inarticulate foreigner will do nothing but exhibit the ignorance of the accusers.

Second, the movie metaphors do come through, but they're well judged for the audience. The first one I heard came at the 15th minute, where he said he didn't want to move boxes around in the organizational chart of government, he wanted to blow them up. There was applause, of course. Always a good idea to have a big explosion in the third reel. We like our special effects in California. It's one of our local industries.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 6, 2004 08:45 PM