Not just more of the same

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As has been widely reported, the text released to the press of Sarah Palin's speech, and the version that appeared on the teleprompters for her to read, contained a quasi-phonetic spelling that signals a striking departure from the policy of the Bush administration:

Starting in January, in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines … build more new-clear plants … create jobs with clean coal … and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative sources.

For some historical context, see "'Nucular' solecism traced to 200 B.C.", 1/2/2004; or for a more serious linguistic discussion, "Axe a stupid question", 3/21/2005, and the links contained therein.


  1. Grep Agni said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    I've never read from a tele-prompter, but I have to believe I would stumble badly over that text. "What the hell is a 'clear plant,'" I would ask myself, "and do we really need new ones? And who put that stupid hyphen there?"

    I suppose she must have practiced several times and needed the pronunciation help.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    My recollection is that both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who attended nuclear power school for several months, said "nucular" rather than "nuclear." Indeed, I can't recall any president who pronounced the word as it is spelled. The reason this happens, I believe, is that it is easier to utter "nucular," with the -cl- consonant cluster syllabically broken up, than as "nuclear," with the -cl- consonant cluster intact.

    Similarly, I've never met a child under 5 years of age who says "spaghetti," with the initial consonant cluster intact, rather than "busghetti," with it broken up by metathesis.

    In general, I think that consonant clusters are relatively hard to enunciate clearly, but would like to hear from the phoneticists and phonologists whether there is any empirical evidence to support my impression.

  3. John said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    I thought I heard pretty even stress on the two syllables. I
    thought it sounded odd during the speech, but didn't know
    about the spelling.

    Perhaps Language Log could do a phonetic analysis.

  4. Bryn LaFollette said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    Syllable initial consontant clusters are known to be articulatorily more difficult than single consonants. Though in the standard pronunciation of "nucular" the second syllable also begins with a cluster, being pronounced ['], /kj/ is still easier to articulate than /kl/. Historically, languages have a tendency to change clusters like /kl/ to single consonants (e.g. Latin 'clamare' became 'llamar' in Spanish), and this is considered to be further support for the difference in ease of articulation. There is an alternate syllabification of 'nuclear' to the one the teleprompter seems indicate: /nuk.lir/ vs /nu.klir/. But, / still has a greater ease of articulation since it has only open syllables (since the /r/ is syllabic) with easily articulated onsets (at least, easier than /kl/).

  5. Nathan said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    Is it really a two-syllable pronunciation that is being suggested here, rather than the standard three syllables? Having consulted a handful of online and print dictionaries, I've failed to find a two-syllable pronunciation for this word. Indeed, I've tried several times to say it that way, and it seems I can't do it and maintain initial stress. I need the schwa before the r.

  6. Karen said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    No, I think it was meant to be new-cle-ar but presumably she only needed the one hyphen to get it right. I can say it with two syllables and first-syllable stress quite easily, but only if the last syllable is a syllabic R (as in butter.

  7. Bryn LaFollette said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 3:11 pm


    The word-final rhotic, /r/, in American English has a strong tendency to make itself feel very much like its own syllable. I'm guessing that in your pronunciation rather than there being any schwa between the /i/ and the /r/, that in fact the /r/ is just syllabic, since this is how my pronunciation is. But really, it's just a tough call to make whether one says /nu.cli.r/ or /nu.clir/, and the same is the case for 'clear'. I would say it's difficult for me to say whether words like 'fire', 'tire', 'fear', 'beer', etc are one or two syllables. I think that it actually varies a lot depending upon the phonetic context of the rest of my utterance in which they occur. It's certainly not something I tried yet recording and examining waveforms or spectrograms of… yet!

  8. Joe said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    To me, her accent sounds like a weak Minnesota accent. But I grew up in Iowa, so it doesn't sound that odd to me. Mind you, I used to pronounce nuclear as "nukular" until a college physics professor corrected me.

  9. Tory Fell said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

    All former presidents except Clinton said nucular, and then Clinton went and got 'involved' with Monica Levinski. It kind of raises questions of whether Palin's presidential material.

  10. mollymooly said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    This seems to be much less of an issue in British English; I guess /nju.kli.ə/ is easier to say than /nju.kjə.lə/ with its repeated glides.

    I remember hearing "cochular" for "cochlear" on CSI or Law and Order. I must listen for it in the UK…

    Nelson Mandela's speech to the Irish parliament thanked the Taoiseach; in the script released to the media this was, very reasonably, written "tea-shock"

    And I know for a fact that William Henry Harrison never said "nucular".

  11. Matt said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

    From experience (in a college broadcast journalism class), reading from a teleprompter is very, very tough for people who read a lot. You're not supposed to read to understand, you're supposed to just read what you see. Just this morning on CNN, an anchor stumbled over "2008," saying "twenty, oh, eight …" I can't imagine how it was written out, but it should have been "two-thousand-eight" if memory of the style serves.

  12. Tory Fell said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 4:19 am

    Goodness, Molly, you're always so literal.

  13. CJ said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    This particular instance points to our pathetic sigh-ence education. Anyone having studied biology and learned about a sell's new-clee-us would pronounce new-clee-er only wun way.

  14. Will said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    Not only is "nucular" so rare in British English as to be laughable, I remember that as little kids in Scotland in the 70s many of my peers referred to a certain fictional vampire as "Draclia". Maybe there's a real cultural/linguistic difference here.

  15. Tory Fell said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    No there isn't. Plenty of people said nucular in England in the sixties, when I was growing up. In fact I probably said it myself.

  16. Y said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    For the record, Palin's speech notes also included "habber-dasher".
    Also, one chemistry professor I had consistently used "nuculus".

  17. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 12:15 am

    It reminds me of the Eurythmics (with Elvis Costello): And the world is slowly dawning/To wake up to a new clear morning

  18. Ken Brown said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    Or Emerson, Lake & Palmer's mildly pompous prog-rock SF epic "Karn Evil 9":

    "No computer stands in my way
    Only blood can cancel my pain
    Guardians of a new clear dawn
    Let the maps of war be drawn.

    Rejoice! Glory is ours!
    Our young men have not died in vain,
    Their graves need no flowers
    The tapes have recorded their names."

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