November 28, 2005

Presidential self-repair

If you missed that odd annual Thanksgiving ritual, the presidential turkey pardon, Bruce Reed provides a sarcastic blow-by-blow on Slate today. Reed contrasts Bush's buoyant mood at last year's ceremony, shortly after his reelection, with the more somber atmosphere at the White House this year. Bush even had trouble making it through his routine introductory jokes, Reed notes:

Bush labored through the ceremony, stammering, "This is what we call—the White House is called the people's house, and we're going to call Marshmallow and Yam the people's turkey ...s."

This is perhaps further proof of Bush's growing disfluency over the course of his administration, but this particular stumble is worth some extra attention.

The video of the ceremony accompanies the official White House transcript, but I have isolated the audio for the relevant sentence in an MP3 file here. My transcription follows:

the uh [pause 1.26]
this is what we call th- [pause 0.64]
uh the White House is called the people's house [pause 1.10]
and uh we're going to call Marshmallow and Yam the people's turkey [pause 0.68]
zuh [pause 1.20]

After a couple of false starts, Bush performs "self-repair" (as it's called in discourse analysis) and introduces the first half of his coordinate structure ("X is called the people's Y"). But things go amiss once again in the second half, as Bush runs into a conflict between a plural noun phrase ("Marshmallow and Yam") and a singular coreferent ("the people's turkey"). I suspect that the source of Bush's confusion was twofold: first, he was swept along by the coordination between "the people's house" and "the people's turkey," and second, only one of the two pardoned turkeys was actually present at the event. (Yam, the president revealed, was "in a pickup truck hanging out by the South Lawn.")

Unlike other cases where Bush has run into problems with agreement in number, it was possible to rectify this error without repeating all or part of the sentence. All he needed to do was to add [z] to the end of "turkey" to indicate the plural form. But Bush pauses a bit too long to perform this self-repair seamlessly. And once he does so, he chooses neither to repeat the corrected word ("turkeys") nor to add a syllabic [z̩], as appears in onomatopoetic words like bzzz. (The latter strategy is often used to contrast a plural form as distinct from a singular, e.g.: "Did you say 'your friend' or 'your friends' were coming over?") Rather, Bush appends an exaggerated monosyllable, which could be transcribed as [zə] or [zʌ], and then moves on to the next sentence.

It's possible that Bush was hamming up his speech a bit for the crowd, which included students from an elementary school in Clarksville, Maryland. But it wasn't a very good example to set for the kids, discourse-wise.

[Then again, maybe Bush was simply deploying an interjection from The Simpsons: "Zuh," defined by Wikipedia as an "exclamation used when one cannot comprehend a complex situation or statement."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 28, 2005 06:26 PM