June 29, 2004

The thin line between error and mere variation II: going nucular

[Continued from part 1]

Ordinary people, faced with what are for them deviant, "wrong", bits of language, see nothing but a mistake, period. They are resistant to the linguist's idea that there could be a rationale for the "mistake", even a system to it, or that, in fact, the very same thing could result from different sources or represent different systems. (This attitude presents a tough challenge when we teach beginning linguistics courses -- not only when we talk about dialects, but also when we talk about language acquisition. One of the hardest lessons for many students is that instead of saying what's wrong, what people "can't" or "won't" do, they should be describing what people *do*, and making hypotheses about *why* they do that.)

Geoff Nunberg's Going Nucular" piece makes a significant advance in trying to get these ideas out to linguistically unsophisticated people. First, it makes an inadvertent/advertent distinction (via the labels "typo" vs. "thinko"); some people say "nucular" because they've inadvertently reshaped the pronunciation to fit a common -ular pattern for learned words (tabular, globular, tubular, vernacular, oracular, popular, spectacular, oracular, etc., but especially molecular), but other people say it because they think that (at least in some contexts) this is the way the word is pronounced. What Nunberg doesn't stress is that these days virtually everybody who says "nucular" is in the second group; though the support of other -ular words helps to make "nucular" sound right, these people are saying it because other people say it. (The same point can be made for almost any innovative usage. Though hypercorrection surely played some role in the development of nominative coordinate object pronouns -- the famous "between Kim and I" -- for some time now people with this usage have it because that's what they hear, with some frequency, from the relevant people.)

Second, Nunberg doesn't stop there, but speculates some about the possibility of different systems for the use of "nucular". In particular, he cites at least one speaker for whom "nucular" refers specifically to nukes, with "nuclear" used in expressions like "nuclear family" and "the nuclear material of the cell". This is a tremendous advance, with many analogies in other areas (there are several different systems of nominative coordinate object pronouns, several different systems of multiple negation, and so on), but it stops well short of telling the whole truth. To do that, the whole discussion has to be re-framed.

Instead of talking about "nucular" as a mere thinko, we need to treat it as a variant pronunciation for a word, an alternative to "nuclear". Just like alternative pronunciations for: radiator, apricot, tomato, envelope, and many, many other words (with item-specific variants). So, put aside judgmental attitudes for a while, and ask how people use these alternative pronunciations. There are five types of systems:

Type 1: "nuclear" all the way. (This is my system, for what that's worth.)

Type 2: free variation, or as close as people come to this. While you might be able to discern reasons for one choice or the other in particular contexts, for the most part the motivations for choosing one variant over the other are too context-specific, too idiosyncratic, too much in the moment: inscrutable, in fact. As far as I can tell, that's my situation for the /a/ vs. /E/ pronunciations for "envelope", and for the cursive vs. the printed variants for the capital letter a, even in my first name.

Type 3: variation according to context, say according to formality, with "nuclear" as the formal, fancy, or scientific pronunciation, and "nucular" as the informal, homey, everyday pronunciation. My own pronunciation of "tomato" is mostly /a/ (thanks to living with an /a/-speaker for decades and to residence in the U.K. for significant periods), but more and more I'm inclined to use /e/ when speaking to Americans.

Type 4: variation according to semantics, as in the nucular-nukes variety reported by Nunberg.

Type 5: "nucular" all the way; the -ular pronunciation is *the* pronunciation for the word. There are, I belief, very many speakers of this sort. They understand that other people say the word differently, just as I understand that some people have /ae/ in "radiator" or "apricot", instead of my /e/. That's ok for them, but what I do is ok for me.

Nunberg suggests that George W. Bush might be a Type 4 speaker, but he could well be a Type 5 speaker. Instances of the "nuclear" pronunciation are so rare in his speech as to preclude the other three possibilities.

There's a further dimension to all of this, namely the question of intentionality, or conscious choice. Nunberg is inclined to see GWB as having *chosen* the "nucular" variant, to project a particular persona; in even less neutral phrasing, GWB "puts on" his folksy, Texas-rancher, hypermasculine persona, with the linguistic accoutrements that go along with that.

I don't doubt that some people sometimes consciously re-shape their behavior in certain respects. But I think that most accommodations to social varieties and most constructions of personas via behavior (linguistic and otherwise) happen below the level of consciousness, usually with very little awareness of what features are being chosen or why. (In a sense, this *has* to be true. There are just too many bits of behavior for choices among them to be under conscious control. This is especially true for bits of linguistic behavior, which have to be produced in tiny amounts of time, many at the same time.)

Some years ago it was pointed out to me that when I'm trying to be very precise in talking about linguistics, I use dental rather than alveolar articulations for consonants. Eventually, this astute observer (Ann Daingerfield Zwicky) noted that I'd never done that before I went to graduate school. After some reflection on this odd state of affairs, we realized that I was reproducing the articulations of my graduate school adviser, Morris Halle, in my Serious Linguist persona. All entirely unconsciously, I assure you.

Anecdotes like this could be multiplied endlessly. There's even some research on the matter. As a result, I'd be very very cautious in attributing someone's ensemble of linguistic features to conscious choice. GWB could come to his pronunciation "nucular", his extremely high use of "-in'" over "-ing", and so on without ever thinking any of it through (and without consciously rejecting standard or formal variants). He could get there just by behaving like the kind of person he believes himself to be. Like, in fact, the rest of us.

[Also posted 6/28/2004 to the ADS-L listserv]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 29, 2004 06:26 AM