September 30, 2007

Weisberg wins

According to Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Bush Trips Over 'Children', and That's the Official Truth", 9/28/2007, NYT:

At an appearance with city officials, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Mr. Bush sought to spotlight his signature education bill, No Child Left Behind. The president pronounced himself pleased by a recent report that math test scores have improved, citing it as evidence that the law is working.

“Childrens do learn,” the president said, “when standards are high and results are measured.”

Stolberg's story focuses on the fact that the authors of the the official White House transcript removed the errant -s, and then re-inserted it on the instructions of the new White House press secretary, Dana Perino, who told reporters that

“You know, the president — it is no secret — sometimes makes grammatical errors,” Ms. Perino said, adding, “The integrity of the transcripts are very important to me, and I’ve made that clear.”

No one seems to have noticed that Ms. Perino's own statement contains a lovely example of "agreement with nearest" ("the integrity ... are"), a frequent phenomenon that is generally felt to be a violation of grammatical norms. So you might expect me to use this as the taking-off point for yet another rant about the hypocrisy of Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms industry.

Or failing that, I could spend some time on the irony of journalistic sanctimoniousness in this case, given how much more careful the White House transcribers are than the spectacularly careless direct-quotation practices of journalists, including those at the New York Times.

But I'm starting to get a sort of Ancient Mariner vibe on these topics. ("Starting?", I hear some of you saying...) So I'll take this one in a different direction.

Adding an extra regular plural marker to an irregular plural form ("mices", "geeses", "childrens") is a common mistake for children at a certain stage of language acquisition, but it's very rare for adult native speakers of English to do this. I can't cite any quantitative studies on the frequency of adult errors of this type (if you have some, please tell me), but that's what intuition tells me.

However, it looks to me like that's what happened in this case. Here's an audio clip of the passage in question:

Though W does pause a bit after "childrens", there aren't any indications of a phrasal planning mix-up, like starting to say "children's r(esults do improve)" and then changing to "do learn". Nor is there any obvious source for the -s from perseveration, anticipation or interchange. Nor is "childrens" likely to be part of the spoken norms of W's youth in Midland, Texas (much less Kennebunkport, Maine, Phillips Academy or Yale).

It's true that there's a (fictional?) southern dialect form often spelled "chilluns", which I especially associate with the Uncle Remus stories:

"'I can't clim', Sis Cow', sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'but I'll run'n tell Brer Bull,' sezee; and wid dat Brer Rabbit put out fer home, en 'twa'n't long 'fo' here he come with his  ole 'oman and al his chilluns, en de las' one er de fambly wuz totin' a pail."

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature wrote about Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus dialect, "The plurals of all nouns tend to become regular. Thus Uncle Remus says foots (feet), toofies (teeth), and gooses (geese), though the old plural year is retained." That's not quite right, since Uncle Remus has chilluns and not childs -- but this may have been Harris's invention anyhow, since all the recorded examples that I can recall are like John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun", without the the final -s.

On the other hand, web search turns up some apparently authentic transcriptions with "chilluns". But in any case, fictional or not, Uncle Remus is not any of W's native dialects.

No, I'm afraid that this is just a morphological error, and a rather weird and unexpected one. It's strange to have a president who says things like that. This time, Jacob Weisberg wins.

[Update -- Leslie Katz has pointed out this 9/28/2007 comment on Ms. Perino's "agreement with nearest".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 30, 2007 08:18 AM