August 24, 2007

Giuliani's lisp?

According to Peter J Boyer, "Mayberry Man", New Yorker, 8/20/2007:

It became clear at the start of Giuliani's political career that his courtroom talents -- the ability to break a witness on the stand, for example -- were not especially useful in the task of charming voters. In Giuliani's delivery style, there was no trace of the natural politician. Apart from mechanical liabilities -- including a lateral lisp that produces a slushy "s" sound -- Giuliani was impaired by a native harshness that proved resistant to the remedies of his political advisors.

It's nice to see a magazine writer using a term of art from speech pathology, where "lateral lisp" is defined this way:

Lateral lisps are not found in typical speech development. The tongue position for a lateral lisp is very close to the normal position for /l/ and the sound is made with the air-flow directed over the sides of the tongue. Because of the way it sounds, this sort of lisp is sometimes referred to as a 'slushy ess' or a 'slushy lisp'. A lateral lisp often sounds 'wet' or 'spitty'.

Unlike interdental and dentalised lisps, lateral lisps are not characteristic of normal development. An SLP assessment is indicated for anyone with a lateral lisp.

But I hadn't noticed this problem in Giuliani's speech, so I figured, maybe he got therapy for it. In search of the "before" condition, I found a Women's Coalition for Giuliani event said to be from 11/3/89, viewed 167,000 times on YouTube here. (I can't vouch for the date, but he certainly looks much younger). Here's how it starts:

There must be public funding
for abortions for poor women.
We cannot deny any woman the right
to make her own decision
about abortion
because she lacks resources.
I have also stated that I disagree
with President Bush's veto last week
of public funding for abortion.

There are plenty of /s/ and /z/ sounds there, so give a listen:

The audio quality is not the best, but maybe there's a little slushiness in his sibilants. On the other hand, it's subtle at best, and maybe I'm just primed by Boyer's description.

Or perhaps I'm just not adequately tuned in to the zeitgeist. A bit of internet searching reveals that the lisp is part of the standard story about Giuliani:

(Time magazine, 6/24/2001) Rare is the day that Giuliani's name does not appear in the papers. He is media savvy, not overtly calculating. He loves to talk (he does so with unselfconscious self-absorption), to expatiate in professorial detail (with the slightest hint of a lisp). He is also a modern haiku master who can distill a complicated answer into a crisp, 15-second sound bite.

Various sources, mostly blog commenters: I just don't see Giuliani and his lisp and his New York pedigree and his multiple marriages resonating with the red staters in a positive way.
  [A snarky YouTube question]
  Giuliani is simply George W. Bush with a lisp.
  Wow! From Tweedle Dee to someone with a Lisp
  "without 9/11, giuliani is a little man with a lisp"
  Jimmy Breslin was never fooled by Rudy the Lisp.
  So if Rudy and Ron do debate, expect Rudy to speak with a British accent (he's got the effeminate lisp down pat) and invite Paul to tea afterwards.
  The man's lisp alone disqualifies him as a real candidate.
  A physically small man possessed of both a lisp and a comb-over, Rudy Giuliani is in almost every way the sort of candidate Republican primary voters have been raised to hate...
  We really don't need a lisp talking elmer fudd look alike running this country!
  Even Karl Rove can't "Reaganize" Giuliani. He is a bald, squirrelly-looking New Yorker with a lisp.

[Update -- Marc Pelletier writes:

I think you forgot an important factor:

In the mouths of American commentators, "X has a lisp" seem to translate as "X doesn't sound like me/favored group does" and is almost unfailingly derogatory.

The examples you cited, and almost all of those I Googled myself, interpret freely as one of "X seems to have (mild) mental retardation", "X appears to be part of the wrong social class" or (supreme insult) "X sounds foreign".

I don't think the phonetics or speech physiology even enters into it.

It's not just Americans.

And the meaning of "nasal" is analogous -- for most people, it seems to mean "sounds different in a way that annoys me".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 24, 2007 06:58 AM