Sound change in action

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Josh Marshall was amused by Governor Tom Ridge’s word-substitution error, in an interview last night on MSNBC:

But the fact is, Governor, that you’ve *had* eight years
of a Bush administration, and a lot of Republicans in Congress for the last eight years,
so why wouldn’t the American people say
“Look, they’ve had their shot, we’re going to change.”

Uh, because uh John Bush [0.213]
b- because uh John McCain [0.396]
is very much his own man, because John McCain brings a different style and a different approach toward Republican leadership, [0.388]
because John McCain has made some promises that I think Americans can feel comfortable about,
that he will keep.

This is a fine example of a context favorable to a Fay-Cutler malapropism, of the type that we’ve discussed several times here recently. I don’t think that it reveals any hidden beliefs, any more than Senator Obama’s substitution of “the next president” for “the next vice-president” did, or Senator Biden’s substitution of “America” for “Obama”.

To me, the part of Governor Ridge’s answer that was most linguistically interesting was the extreme reduction of “Republican” in the phrase “Republican leadership”:

[audio:http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/RidgeRepublican.mp3]

It’s reduced from four syllables to three, to something like IPA [ɹi’pʌ.bj̃ʌ] . In standard orthography, this might be something like “Repubyan”.

There’s nothing really unusual here, in fact — this kind of reduction is normal in high-frequency and redundant words and phrases. It’s what leads locals to pronounce Baltimore as “ballmer”, and Philadelphia as “fluffya”. The main point of interest is that “Republican leadership” is a similarly high-frequency and redudundant phrase for Gov. Ridge.



13 Comments

  1. Alon said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    You mean, from four syllables to three, right?

    [(myl) Oops — I started out talking about the “…publican” dactylic foot, with some remarks about how English prefers trochees, and then decided this was too complicated and too far from the facts; but after cutting it back to a simple observation about syllable count, I neglected to adjust the numbers. Thanks for the catch — I fixed the body of the post.]

    In any case, it does sound intriguing. I am far from a native speaker, and I thankfully don’t have to deal too much with American politics, but I don’t think I’d ever encountered this particular realisation.

  2. Sili said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    Well, I took to calling them “The Republan Party” after they dropped the “-ic-” from Democratic. How prescient.

  3. Arnold Zwicky said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    “Bush” for “McCain” is certainly an inadvertent retrieval error, but it’s a “semantic error” rather than a F/C malapropism (F/C malapropisms are phonologically based). In semantic errors, a speaker or writer pulls up another item from the same semantic domain as the target. Opposites are very common; so are names from the same real-world domain.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    Arnold Zwicky: “Bush” for “McCain” is certainly an inadvertent retrieval error, but it’s a “semantic error” rather than a F/C malapropism (F/C malapropisms are phonologically based).

    But it wasn’t just “Bush” for “McCain”, it was “John Bush” for “John McCain”, where the initial sound is the same as in “George Bush”. So (it seems to me) the context of the substitution has phonological as well as morpho-syntactic and pragmatic aspects, rather like the “Hungarian restaurant” for “Hungarian rhapsody” case.

    In any event, as you note, this slip doesn’t imply that Gov. Ridge secretly believes that McCain is the same as Bush — in fact, the context suggests that he intended to draw a contrast, and got his contrastive wires crossed.

  5. Scott AnderBois said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    This seems quite different than the “next president” misslip. There, the phrase “president of the United States” is high frequency while people rarely say the entire thing for VP. The Barack America substitution seems like the better parallel since it too is a substitution of a quite uncommon phrase.

  6. Conrad said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    “redudundant”

    Nice wordplay! The ‘word’ gets 248 ghits, incidentally.

  7. Conrad said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    Oh wait, only 57 actually.

  8. Dan T. said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    I listen to some Harry Potter-related podcasts, and have noticed that it’s amusingly common for people to interchange the names of Dumbledore and Voldemort, antagonists of one another in the series.

  9. Andrew said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

    Dan T. – Ah well, that proves that Dumbledore is evil, you see!

  10. James Wimberley said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    Conrad “.. 248 ghits..”
    How do you suggest pronouncing this handy neologism? Mute h as in “ghats”, or “gee-hits”? Aviators’ G-forces are pronounced and even written “gees”.
    My reservation about the term is embedding the monopoly of one company’ however innovative. But if you try shortening “search-hits” in the same way…

  11. Conrad said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    gee-hits, definitely.

  12. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    Then there’s Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s announcing that his state cast “55 votes for George S. McCain” . . .

  13. Josh Millard said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    gee-hits, definitely.

    Seconded, though as an alternate I’m supporting “fish”.

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