Super Bowl rhoticism

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The most linguistically focused of this year's Super Bowl commercials:

The NYT critic was not impressed. Mike Hale ("The Super Bowl Ads, Ranked", 2/11/2024) listed it under the heading "Inoffensive but Forgettable: They tried. Nobody got hurt", with the specific comment

As the movie hero Agent State Farm, Arnold Schwarzenegger sends up his film persona and his actual accent. Schwarzenegger is charming but the joke runs thin faaaast.

In contrast, The Athletic (Jake Ciely, "Best and worst 2024 Super Bowl commercials: Ranking the ads | Dunkings, Beyonce, Arnold Schwarzenegger and more", 2/11/2024) ranks it #2, with the comment

Aaarnold Schwarzenegger in his best role since True Lies.

This De Gustibus illustration is especially ironic since The Athletic is the sports department of the NYT.

There were certainly linguistically-relevant aspects of other ads this year — more on that later. Meanwhile, for some background from 15 years ago, see "The theme of this year's Superbowl Ads", 2/5/2007. Or more recently, "Super Bowl Dialectology", 2/2/2020 — which also features r-lessness:


  1. Chris Button said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 9:55 am

    The State Farm Schwarzenegger one made me smile and played nicely on their catchphrase.

    Back in my days as an advertising exec, I probably would have been most proud of Squarespace's aliens one. I think the only trick they missed was not managing to imply why Squarespace would be any better than any of their competitors.

  2. Annie Gottlieb said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 10:02 am

    linguistically-relevant is copyeditorishly-renegade.

    Chicago Manual of Style:

    7.86: Adverbs ending in “ly”

    Chapter Contents / Compounds and Hyphenation

    Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible. (The ly ending with adverbs signals to the reader that the next word will be another modifier, not a noun.)

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 10:04 am

    Wikipedia sez "German and Austrian speakers tend to be variably rhotic when using English loanwords." Maybe A.S. is an invariant exception to this pattern? Now I want audio of him unself-consciously uttering some German phrase that has "wie ein guter Nachbar" somewhere in the middle. I assume the relevant wiki-tidbit is "Near-open central unrounded vowel [ɐ]" as "a post-vocalic allophone of (mostly dorsal) varieties of /r/," but maybe not.

    I'm confident I was never taught when taking German in U.S. schools to suppress my native rhoticism in post-vocalic contexts, even though there was some attempt to teach us to pronounce /r/ differently than we did in English in word-initial contexts. But this may be a shortcoming of the instruction I received more than anything else.

  4. Robert Coren said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 10:35 am

    "the joke runs thin faaaast."

    I'm inclined to agree.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 1:34 pm


    As exemplified in this interview, Arnold's normal variety of English is non-rhotic:

  6. Roscoe said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    Feels like a riff on this “Simpsons” scene:

    …with a hint of this one:

  7. David Marjanović said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 2:51 pm

    Wikipedia sez "German and Austrian speakers tend to be variably rhotic when using English loanwords."

    That's due to inconsistent exposure to American, British and other accents among younger people.

    German is fully non-rhotic, except:

    – Switzerland and its immediate surroundings remain fully rhotic.
    – Along the Rhine, r remains a consonant after short stressed vowels.
    – In Tyrolean dialects, r remains a consonant in -er- and -or-.

    "Near-open central unrounded vowel [ɐ]" as "a post-vocalic allophone of (mostly dorsal) varieties of /r/,"

    [ʀ] and [ʁ] have nothing to do with this. Arrhoticity is older than them in most places.

  8. Counterbander said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 7:50 pm

    Looking more closely at Arnold’s realization of postvocalic, preconsontantal or prepausal letter r.

    I hear a postalveolar approximant in:

    1. “Are” in “You are a backstabber”. Arnold inserts glottal stops before “are” and “a”, making the approximant preconsonantal. Contrast fluently-spoken RP which inserts "linking r" only when the context is prevocalic.
    2. The word “Arnold” is MYL’s clip, though it’s not quite so unambiguous there.

    And yet I hear no approximant in:

    3. “Farm”, as well as the numerous cases which non-rhotic dialects reduce to schwa, e.g.“neighbor”, “labor”, “backstabber”, “governor” (both syllables).

    4. Very noticeably in “there”, Arnold diphthongizes to a near-open unrounded central vowel (JWB), surely borrowed from his native Hochdeutsch pronunciation of “sehr”, etc.

    For my money, Arnold behaves as rhotic in 1 and 2 and non-rhotic in 3. Overall, he is not consistent. As for 4, it is not usually considered as rhoticity, just as other vocalic realizations aren’t such as RP diphthongization to schwa in “peer” or (older) “poor”.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    February 13, 2024 @ 5:08 am


    “Are” in “You are a backstabber”.

    Good point — but that's the standard linking or intrusive /r/ in non-rhotic English varieties. I'm not sure whether the same thing occurs in non-rhotic varieties of German — maybe David Marjanović can tell us.

    The word “Arnold” is MYL’s clip, though it’s not quite so unambiguous there.

    I don't hear rhoticism there (or see it in the spectrogram):

  10. Bill Benzon said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 7:16 am

    I loved that ad. Check out a trailer for the first Conan movie (with roles for Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones) and compare it with that Superbowl commercial. How did Schwarzenegger get from Conan to State Farm by way of the California governorship. For that matter, how did America get from the Conan era to the current Superbowl era? You could teach a media studies/cultural studies course based on those two trajectories.

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 11:02 am

    Surprised no one has mentioned one of Ahnold's greatest line readings, "It's not a tumah."

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