In an op-ed in Saturday's New York Times, Steve Pinker tries to explain or extenuate some of Sarah Palin's linguistic derelictions, real and alleged. Among other things, he says that Palin shouldn't be taxed for saying "nucular," which is
…not a sign of ignorance. This reversal of vowel-like consonants (nuk-l’-yer —> nuk-y’-ler) is common in the world’s languages, and is no more illiterate than pronouncing “iron” the way most Americans do, as “eye-yern” instead of “eye-ren.”
I agree with Pinker's overall conclusion that Palin shouldn't be on the hook for this one, but I think both of the claims here are wrong. It's not a phonetic process, and if it isn't exactly a sign of ignorance, it's the legacy of it.
First off, if this were a case of a phonetically motivated sound change, like the one that turns Februrary into "febyuary," it would be a more complicated and mysterious one than common-or-garden variety metathesis or dissimilation (which is another route that people have gone in trying to explain this one phonetically.) You'd have to explain not just how /y/ and /l/ came to be transposed, but why the new version should wind up not, as Pinker gives it (in Times-reader-friendly phonetics) as "nuk-y’-ler" but rather as "nuk-yu-ler." Where could that that /u/ have come from? And why aren't people tempted to go around saying "likular" (as in "The first outcome is likular than the second") which would be the natural result when likelier underwent the same process that nuclear did.
In fact nuclear isn't a hard word to say, the way February is — not even three times fast. But when the word first entered the popular language it was a relatively obscure one. So it isn't surprising that some people would have reanalyzed it on the model of more familiar items like molecular and particular. In short, thisis an analogical reformation, not the result of a phonetic process. (I dealt with this all some years ago in my book Going Nucular; you can find the title essay here.)
What about Pinker's second point, that Palin's pronunciation of the word is "not a sign of ignorance"? Well, not of her ignorance, anyway. It's fair to assume that "nucular" was the dominant pronunciation in the ambience she grew up in, as it was for Bill Clinton, and that she acquired it "naturally." But at its inception, the "nucular" pronunciation was the result of ignorance, or at least of unfamiliarity with the item, which is why it tends to be more frequent in the varieties used by less-well-educated speakers (or maybe I should say it's less frequent in the varieties used by literate ones).
That doesn't mean that speakers who pick up the "nucular" pronunciation from family, friends, or teachers can be accused of ignorance themselves — they weren't the ones who came up with the reanalysis that motivated the pronunciation. But it does explain why such speakers might want to correct their pronunciation once they're made aware of it — not just because the "nuclear" variant happens to be used by better educated speakers, but because it conforms more closely to the word's orthography, and because this is, in its nature, a word that belongs to literate discourse.
Palin has to be aware that many people consider her pronunciation nonstandard, and she (or her handlers) seems to have made some effort at correction, which is presumably why she pronounced the word as "new clear" when reading off the teleprompter in her convention speech. Since then, though, it's been "nucular" all the way, which may be part of the "let Palin be Palin" strategy.
George Bush, on the other hand, can't be exculpated for saying "nucular." After all, it isn't likely that that version was frequently heard at Andover, Yale, or the Kennebunkport dinner table. In his mouth, it's what I've described as a "faux-bubba" pronunciation. (As I noted in the "Going Nucular" piece, this disaffectation* is not uncommon among Pentagon and DOD types when they're referring to weapons, though not when they're referring to families or medicine.) And for some reason — I feel this strongly, but am not up to justifying it right now — deliberately down-shifting to a misanalyzed pronuncation of nuclear is a lot more culpable as linguistic slumming goes than merely dropping a g now and again.
And what of Palin's g-dropping, which Pinker also refuses — too quickly, I think — to condemn? I'll get to that in another post.
*An attested word, it turns out — who knew?