July 20, 2005

Of Thee (and Ay) I sing

In response to my post about the pronunciation of the and a, several readers wrote in to draw my attention to (what they perceive as) the unexpectedly frequent use of unreduced forms of these words by President George W. Bush. I've taken my title from one of these messages. In general, my correspondents clearly find this aspect of the president's speech to be annoying: they use words like "childish", "stilted, staccato sound", "over-articulated", and so on.

I was puzzled by this, because in preparing my post I looked at a Bush audio clip and transcription that was lying around -- his speech at Gleneagles after the London bombing -- and found that all the (phonetically pre-consonantal) the's and a's were reduced as expected. I didn't include that observation in my post on the and a, because my goal there was to counter the strange view that all reduction of the and a is a symptom of the Decline of the West, and I figured that some people would just assimilate evidence about W's pronunciation to their general low opinion of W's linguistic abilities.

So I asked these correspondents to cite me some citations, with pointers to audio clips -- "at such-and-such a point in such-and-such a speech, W said thus-and-such" In reply, I've gotten three or four plaintive fish stories ("I heard it on the radio in the car, and there were several unreduced articles, except I don't remember exactly what he said or what the context was") but no actual fish.

Well, last night I decided to record President Bush's speech nominating John Roberts to the Supreme Court vacancy, seine out all the the's and a's, and sort them after their kinds. I was fascinated by what I found. (Of course, my fascinations are arguably eccentric...)

The president spoke for about six minutes and seven seconds, and used (by my count) 46 the's and 28 a's.

Bush THE: 2 of the 46 the's preceded vowels; 2 others preceded a pause; 5 preceded the y-sound (IPA [j]) at the start of words like "united" (where assimilation to an [i] is common though not invariant). This leaves 37 phonetically pre-consonantal instances of the. Of these, 36 have a clear schwa as their vowel, and 1 has a unreduced [i]-like vowel. The context was this:

I look forward to the Senate voting to confirm Judge John Roberts {pause} as the one hundred ninth Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. (audio link)

In my opinion, this is an uncertain case. The sequence seems to involve a very slight pseudo-pause, as if the president wanted to check mentally to be sure that he got the number right (a pseudo-pause is a delay or hesitation that is filled by an elongation of preceding sounds rather than by silence). Also, the following word "one" starts with an orthographic vowel, which may have affected the choice.

Bush A: This is a different case altogether. Of the 28 instances of a, 2 were pre-pausal; but of the remaining 26 phonetically pre-consonantal instances of a, fully 6 (or 23%) have an unreduced vowel similar to IPA [ej].

In his career, he has served as a law clerk to Justice William Rehnquist ... (audio link)
In public service and in private practice, he has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, and earned a reputation as one of the best legal minds of his generation.
(audio link)
My decision to nominate Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court came after a thorough and deliberative process.
(audio link)
He has the qualities American expect in a judge ...
(audio link)
These senators share my goal of a dignified confirmation process ...
(audio link)
The appointments of the two most recent Justices to the Supreme Court prove that this confirmation can be done in a timely manner.
(audio link)

Compare the two schwa-quality performances of the occurrences of a in the President's first sentence:

One of the most consequential decisions a President makes is his appointment of a Justice to the Supreme Court. (audio link)

This raises several questions. Is this sporadic use of unreduced a (and less often, the) an individual characteristic of President Bush (as my correspondents have claimed), or something more general? If it's a more general phenomenon, does it have particular regional or social connections? Is it associated with emphasis, with formality, with particular syntactic or phonetic contexts? Does it happen in extemporaneous speech as well as in reading?

I can only answer the first of these questions: it's not unique to George W. Bush. In fact, a small amount of investigation suggests that it's not even especially characteristic of him.

Following the President's nominating speech last night , John Roberts spoke for about 77 seconds. By my count, he used 13 the's and 4 a's.

Roberts THE: 11 of Roberts' the's were the sort of pre-consonantal cases that are normally reduced; of these, one was not reduced:

It is both an honor and very humbling to be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. (audio link)

Roberts A: He used pre-consonantal a 4 times, and of these, one was unreduced:

That experience left me a profound appreciation for the role of the court in our constitutional democracy. (audio link)

Summing up: Bush, 1 unreduced the out of 37; Roberts, 1 out of 11. Bush, 6 unreduced a's out of 26; Roberts, 1 out of 4. The numbers are too small to draw any serious conclusions about overall rates, but it would clearly be unwise to characterize Bush's determiner-reduction pattern as being very different from Roberts'.

As one more point of comparison, I took a look at FDR's "Infamy Speech" to the U.S. Congress after Pearl Harbor, asking for a declaration of war against Japan. (Note that the linked transcription is often wrong... I did my own.)

Roosevelt THE: Roosevelt spoke for about 7 minutes 7 seconds, and by my count he used 24 of the sorts of phonetically pre-consonantal the that we would expect to be reduced. (There were also 12 pre-vocalic the's and 5 preceding IPA [j].) Of the 24 "reduction-prone" cases, 23 were in fact reduced. This 23/24 is not strikingly different from Bush's 36/37. The unreduced case is

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area (audio link)

Roosevelt A: Here's the surprise. Roosevelt uses the indefinite article a 5 times in this speech, and every single one of them is unreduced. Here they are in context:

a date which will live in infamy (audio link)
the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message (audio link)
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. (audio link)
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, nineteen forty one, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire (audio link)

I haven't had time to look at any other Roosevelt speeches to see if this was a consistent property of his formal style. I'm sure that it's not a general characteristic of formal speech style in the 20th century, since I've looked at many other examples (including several other presidents' speeches) without finding it. More on this as I learn it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 20, 2005 10:52 AM