Ask Language Log: Turnbull, Trumble, ?

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Graeme Orr asks:

This relates to US-Australian relations, thrown into mirth if not disarray by a now infamous phone call.

Afterwards, Mr Spicer mistook our PM's surname twice in a press conference.

Australian social media heard Spicer as calling our PM Turnbull 'Trumble'. But I distinctly hear it as 'Trunbull', a simple transposition error of a name Spicer probably only has seen not heard. 'Turnbull' is Anglo/Saxon, 'Trumble' is Scottish and there have been several famous Australian 'Trumbles', so Australians would be primed to hear the misspeaking that way.

Can your software parse the mispronunciation?

Already local journalists are stirring the PM by calling him 'Trumble' to his face.

Which is more than a tease. E.g. that 60 Minutes interviewer is the doyen of our press gallery and believes the Trump phone insults should be a trigger for Australia to free itself from our role as 'Deputy US Sheriff' in the Pacific.

P.S. We are used to this in a way – Jimmy Carter once stood beside PM Malcolm Fraser and welcomed him as 'My good friend John Fraser'. John was merely Fraser's formal first birth name.

Here are the two instances of the prime minister's name, from Mr. Spicer's press-conference responses:

And here's just the "Trumble" part from the first occurrence of the name in Spicer's response:

It sounds like "Trumble" to me. The sounds quality is not very good, but here's a spectrogram with formant tracks, which doesn't show any indication of the rising F2 that would be expected if the first syllable were [tɹʌn] rather than [tɹʌm]:

I'm referring to the green line in the region circled below:

For completeness, here's the whole segment that I took the audio clips from:


And for lagniappe, since we've been discussing lenition processes in ling521, I note that Mr. Spicer pronounces "minister" with just two syllables, phonetically [ˈmɪ̃n.stɹ̩] or maybe [ˈmɪ̃.stɹ̩]. Here's the word:

And just the first (phonetic) syllable:

This is not a criticism of Mr. Spicer, who has been getting a certain amount of it lately — I would pronounce "minister" the same way myself in fluent speech.


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

    It's perhaps significant that Spicer went to Connecticut College in New London, CT, and there's a town in Fairfield County, CT called Trumbull. (The town is named after Jonathan Trumbull, father of the Revolutionary War painter John Trumbull. Wikipedia says Jonathan Trumbull changed the family name from "Trumble" for reasons unknown.)

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    And, he works for someone named tru-nasal . . .

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

    I'm surprised that KellyAnne Conway has not yet explained that Spicer is now offering alternative names.

  4. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

    In principle, an AmE pronunciation of “Turnbull” with a rhotic [ɚ]/[ɹ̩] in the nucleus and homorganic assimilation of the /n/ to the following /b/ could sound a lot like “Trumble,” especially to an AusE listener (who might be predisposed to hear the rhotic as belonging to the onset). But Spicer’s pronunciation also sounds very much like "Trumble" to my North American ears, and I think that's because there's affrication of the initial /t/, which I would expect in an onset /tɹ/ cluster but not in an onset–nucleus /tɚ/ sequence.

  5. Bloix said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

    In most British English, N before B assimilates to M. "London Bridge" is "Londum Bridge," more or less. "Turnbull" for most British speakers would be pronounced something like Tumble. Trunbull, if there were such a name, would be Trumble. I don't hear enough Australian English to know how they would say it.

    And for what it's worth, the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting the error as "Trunbull."

    'Prime Minister Trunbull': Sean Spicer gets PM's name wrong again

  6. Bloix said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

    Youtube shows that Australians don't assimilate the N and say "Turnble."

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

    I can't recall ever encountering the surname Trumble and my first reaction to it was "looks like a spelling variant of 'Trumbull.'" But maybe I've also spent just enough time in Connecticut to be primed for "Trumbull," since it's not like it's a particularly common US surname with the -bull spelling either. (Wikipedia says the immigrant ancestor of the famous Connecticut Trumbulls came from Northumberland, which ain't Scotland, but perhaps there's a surname isogloss in Britain that runs further south than the English-Scottish border itself?)

    [(myl) According to the U.S. Census Bureau's list of "Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 1990", Trumble is #14728 in order of frequency, while Trumbull is #14451. Not much difference. FWIW, Turnbull is #3806.]

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

    'Turnbull' and 'Trumbull' are the same name – ME rhotic dissimilation – anyway, and I'm sure 'Trumble' is just an alternative spelling of the latter after the secondary stress was lost.

    That process is no longer productive, though, as far as I know, so his 'Trumbull' was just a malaprop perhaps prompted by factors identified in previous comments.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. David Morris said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

    Two major Australian news outlets report the name as 'Trunbull' and 'Trumble' respectively.

    By the way, Hugh Trumble was a famous cricketer over 100 years ago.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

    On further digging into the US Census' 1990 surnames frequency database, it looks like the US had as of that date as many or more Trimbles than it had Turnbulls, Trumbulls and Trumbles combined. One online source gives "variant of Turnbull" as one of three possible etymologies of Trimble, with the other two being imho more dubious and fanciful-sounding. But even Trimble is not necessarily so common as to be on any given Presidential spokesperson's lips as source of interference here.

  11. Graeme said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

    Ah. 'Trumbull'. Part transposition, part Trum-position.

  12. Yerushalmi said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

    @Ben Zimmer

    There's also Jonathan Trumbull Jr., second speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    He's the first Trumbull I think of, because I know somebody named after him.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 5:32 pm


    I hear [ˈmɪ̃ˑ.stɹ̩]: definitely no [n], and the stressed vowel is longer than expected for Spicer's speed of speaking – I drove myself crazy for a minute trying to hear if there are two loudness peaks, *[ˈmɪ̃.ɪ̃.stɹ̩], as I first thought, but your recording of the single syllable shows amazingly clearly that that's not the case.

    Concerning -bull vs. -ble, Spicer's /l/ is velarized enough that I have no way of telling if I hear a reduced vowel or just the onset of velarization, perhaps [bɰl̩ˠ].

    Youtube shows that Australians don't assimilate the N and say "Turnble."

    The example in the first few seconds (is there another?) is a careful announcement. Do Australians really not assimilate in more casual speech? That would greatly surprise me… although lack of nasal assimilation has a lot of tradition in Australia: there are languages there where [ˈwanka] and [ˈwaŋka] are two different words…

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    @ David Marjanović: there are languages there where [ˈwanka] and [ˈwaŋka] are two different words…

    Whereas [ˈwæŋka] is a different word entirely. ;)

  15. Matt_M said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 6:58 am

    I'm Australian, and I'm pretty sure that assimilation of a nasal to a following consonant is absolutely normal in Australian speech.

    I've learnt a bit of Thai, and I've been corrected for assimilating syllable-final /n/ — so that's another language where non-assimilation is the norm.

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