November 06, 2005

Guttural politics

On Friday, in the waning days of a nasty gubernatorial race in New Jersey, Democratic candidate Jon Corzine was confronted by reporters about allegations of an extramarital affair with one of his former staffers. Corzine angrily replied:

I'm not going to comment on that kind of low, guttural politics going on in this state.

And back in April, Rush Limbaugh issued the following bizarre on-air quasi-apology for using the term blow jobs during a rant about Al Gore and Bill Clinton (as transcribed by Billboard Radio Monitor):

I meant to say 'oral sex' throughout, but the guttural term escaped my pouty lips in a moment of pure, unbridled passion.

What's happened to the word guttural? A phonetic (or folk-phonetic) term for the articulation of consonants near the back of the vocal tract now gets applied to everything from sexual obscenities to New Jersey politics. How did it end up in the metaphorical gutter?

The simple explanation is that guttural has fused in many people's minds with gutter, particularly in the attributive sense of 'low-down, dirty, vulgar,' as in gutter politics or gutter mouth. So this is an eggcornic confusion. But in which direction is the eggcorn heading? Is it simply a substitution of gutter with the similar-sounding guttural? Or has guttural already changed its sense under influence from gutter, to the point that the word might more accurately be spelled as gutteral? Note that both of the above examples are from media transcripts of public speech; even if a transcriber wanted to represent the word as gutteral, an officious spellchecker, computerized or human, would quickly "correct" it to guttural. (For examples of gutteral in unedited text, see the Eggcorn Database.) 

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether we understand this phenomenon as a replacement of gutter with guttural, or as a reanalysis of guttural as gutteral (meaning 'of or in the gutter').  Either way, guttural and gutter have been phonetically and semantically conflated. A more interesting question is how this conflation developed in the first place.

For more than four centuries, guttural (from Latin guttur 'throat' via Medieval Latin gutturalis) has been used to describe consonants articulated towards the back of the oral cavity. Modern phoneticians would more precisely categorize such consonants into velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal articulations. The term arose as a way to describe certain Hebrew consonants, particularly those represented by the letters het (voiceless pharyngeal or velar fricative), ayin (voiced pharyngeal fricative or approximant), alef (glottal stop), he (voiceless glottal fricative), and sometimes resh (voiced uvular fricative). (There is a great deal of variation in the phonetic realization of these consonants, as outlined here and here.)

Guttural came to be used as a descriptor not just for consonants in Hebrew and other Semitic languages like Arabic, but also for some sounds in European languages, such as the voiceless velar fricative /x/ in German Bach, Dutch van Gogh, and Scottish loch. Of course, English has consonants with velar articulation (the stops /k/ and /g/ and the nasal /ŋ/), not to mention a glottal fricative (/h/), but guttural has been inexactly associated with foreign consonants that sound "throaty" to English speakers. With the advent of modern articulatory phonetics, the term has largely dropped out of use among linguists (though it still retains some currency in studies of Hebrew).

The folk-linguistic sense lives on, however, in English speakers' impressionistic portrayals of the perceived "harshness" of languages like German or Arabic, or even of other English dialects. In contemporary usage it's one of those words that gets thrown around whenever a speaker finds an alien speech pattern somehow displeasing. (Merriam-Webster aptly defines this sense as "being or marked by utterance that is strange, unpleasant, or disagreeable.") A quick Web search turns up such examples as "a guttural English/Chinese mishmash," "a guttural Yorkshire accent," "a guttural Southern drawl," "guttural Ebonics," and countless others. Very often, of course, guttural modifies nonlinguistic vocalizations (roar, laugh, squawk, purr, growl, yell, cackle, groan, etc.). Such collocations only underscore the fact that speech described as guttural may be deemed not just substandard but sublinguistic (at times even subhuman).

The value of speech patterns labeled guttural, in other words, is already quite low in the estimation of many, even without the help of the similar-sounding but etymologically unrelated gutter.  Add to this the fact that gutter is often applied attributively to indicate coarse speech ("gutter language," "gutter talk," "gutter slang," etc.), and the conflation of guttural and gutter to describe vulgar or distasteful forms of communication seems practically inevitable. From there it's a short step to Jon Corzine's "guttural politics."

Sometimes guttural is parasitized not just by gutter but by gut as well. Thus we find many examples of guttural (or gutteral) with a sense of 'visceral' or 'intense.' (See, for instance, the hundreds of Googlehits for "guttural/gutteral reaction" and "guttural/gutteral instinct.") What is happening, then, is that as the articulatory sense of guttural becomes obscured over time, the word gets pressed into service as a readymade adjectival form for either gut or gutter, especially in contexts where those words are used attributively (e.g., gut reaction, gutter politics).

It's not always easy to pick apart the tangled semantic web of gut, gutter, and guttural. When Howard Dean emitted his famous scream in his concession speech after the 2004 Iowa caucuses, it was often described at the time as "guttural." Did that mean the scream was throaty, vulgar, or visceral? For many observers, it was all three at once. Now that's guttural politics.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 6, 2005 01:36 AM