Pinker contra Nunberg re nuclear/nucular

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[This is a guest post by Steven Pinker of Harvard University. —GKP]

I agree with Geoff Nunberg that the nucular pronunciation is not the result of a phonetic process that applies across the board in these dialects. It's a lexical phenomenon, though one with a phonetic motivation, and I didn't distinguish the two in my Times Op-Ed piece. In this regard I think it's related to Febuary, jewlery, iurn, purty, and Kirsten (from Christine). I also agree that there is an analogical attraction to words like binoculars, particular, circular, vascular, and muscular, but it is one that may have prevailed because the weak perception of the order of the adjacent sonorants in nuclear failed to resist the tug.

But I don't agree with other aspects of the analysis.

I don't hear a yu in the middle syllable of nucular, but rather a schwa; I suspect the perception of the u is influenced by the spelling. Nor is it clear that this is a faux-bubba disaffectation (both great words, by the way), or a sign of ignorance. Jimmy Carter, during his 1980 debate with Reagan, boasted that he was a nucular engineer, and both Eisenhower and Mondale have been credited with the pronunciation as well. Last Friday I spoke to the Strategic Studies Group at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and heard the pronunciation from two of the senior analysts there. According to Merriam-Webster, "Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in [kyələr] have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers."

I also doubt that nucular represents conscious linguistic slumming by Bush or Palin. People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers, so Midland and Houston were the formative influences on Bush's accent, rather than Kennebunkport and Andover. (It seems unlikely that Bush is faking his entire Texan accent.) And I wonder whether nucular is enough of a bubba shibboleth to grant a politician more points than he or she loses among the mainstream pundits.

Since my op-ed came out I've received many emails with other analyses. One suggested that nucular involves a back-formation incorporating nuke, but the timing is wrong: nucular dates back to the 1950s, but nuke was still unfamiliar in the mid-1970s. (In 1976, a Harvard graduate-school friend of mine saw the bumper sticker "No Nukes" and thought that it was a racist slogan!) Another correspondent suggested that nucular betrays an ignorance of the connection to nucleus. But do we know whether these speakers also pronounce nucleus as nuculus? And do we know whether a nuclear-sayer could give a clearer explanation of the relation between an atomic nucleus and nuclear power than a nucular-sayer? We all use technical terms with pronunciations that obscure their original composition, such as helicopter (helico + pter, "spiral wing"), fax (from fac + simile "make similar" transmission), modem ("modulator-demodulator"), and so on.

I think we can all agree that there's a master's thesis in here for someone: we lack good data on the regional, class, and age distribution of the two pronunciations, and the linguistic and psychological factors that they correlate with.

— Steven Pinker


  1. alex boulton said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 7:07 am

    A similar British phenomenon: I originally come from East Anglia (north east of London), often pronounced East Angular — though perhaps more often by people deriding the local yokels.

  2. mgh said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 8:50 am

    I'm not sure this refutes what I saw as Nunberg's strongest point, namely that "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."

    By analogy, in molecular biology there is a lot of slang jargon ones hears among some speakers in the lab — "bugs" for bacteria, for example — that I would also call disaffectations. Like "nucular," when used in a more formal venue like a seminar they come off as forced. (To me, they seem overly precious even in a lab.)

    So, the point that nuclear experts say "nucular" does not seem to argue against its being a disaffectation. In fact, if as Nunberg says it is specific to weapons and power but pronounced "nuclear" for other uses of the word, it seems clear that experts do use it as a disaffectation.

  3. georgeh said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 10:28 am

    "I also doubt that nucular represents conscious linguistic slumming by Bush or Palin."

    I don't know about Palin, but having grown up down the street from the Bush family in Houston I can speak to Bush's accent. It's conscious linguistic slumming, as was that of the late Molly Ivins, who also grew up in that neighborhood at that time. Both appeared sometime after college.

  4. ajay said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 10:41 am

    "n this regard I think it's related to Febuary, jewlery, iurn, purty, and Kirsten (from Christine)."

    But "jewlery" is a perfectly rational pronunciation of the word as it is written, as long as you use the British spelling "jewellery" , in which case it's "jewel" (pronounced jool) followed by "-ery" (pronounced ery). It only seems wrong if you use the American spelling "jewelry".

  5. John O'Toole said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    Ah, two of my linguisitico-intellectual heroes going at it neurono a neurono in an exciting orthoepic smackdown! Life is definitely sweet at Language Log! Oh were I younger, I might embark on the proposed master's thesis. Three cheers, gentlemen, for your always stimulating contributions to the intellectual health of the republic.

  6. Adam Trotter said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

    My father, a North Carolina native (from the same town and with the same accent as presidential candidate John Edwards) pronounces it "nyoo-kyoo-ler", with almost equal stress on the first two syllables, and certainly without a schwa. Moreover, he has enormous difficulty enunciating the "correct" version. For him, it's a genuine tongue-twister. The "yoo" in the first syllable somehow forces the second. I'd be curious to know if this phenomenon is less common among speakers who pronounce the first syllable "noo". (As an aside, this reminds me of a popular test for detecting a Yankee in our midst: a local roots for "Dyook"; if you root for "Dook", you're from out of town.)

  7. Ellen K. said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    "I don't hear a yu in the middle syllable of nucular, but rather a schwa"

    I'm curious about that, because seems to me that's two different differences… u versus schwa, and y versus no y. The first a more minor different, and the later a pretty major difference.

  8. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    In my mind's ear, Jimmy Carter is saying "nukeyur," not "nucular." Is my mind's ear wrong, or do others have the same recollection?

  9. jackofhearts29 said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    As an urban Southerner from Atlanta with just a trace of regional southern pronunciation in my speech, I agree with Trotter that the palatalization of the initial "n", in preparation for the /ju/ phoneme, seems to "infect" the /k/, making it very close to /c/..

    In turn, this seems to make the transition to a normal velarized /l/ difficult (including movement of the tongue tip from low to high), and the default solution in fast speech is to slide the tongue off the palate and open the airstream enough for a short schwa vowel to result.

    This transferred unstressed vowel is definitely "schwa-like" but is also affected by the glide off of the palatal /c/, resulting in more of a close mid unrounded vowel. Then, the tongue has assumed a neutral position from which a velar /l/ is easily reached.

    This is how it seems to me when I say it fast, anyway… in formal, slow speech, I don't normally use the "nucular" variant, and the velar /k/ clusters, glottalized and unaspirated, with the /l/ nicely.

  10. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

    I can interpret all of Pinker's examples but one: "iurn". What is that supposed to represent? Can it possibly be "ruin"? I can't imagine anyone saying "iurn" for "ruin".

  11. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    Simon — "iurn" indicates the word spelled "iron", which most of us pronounce as "I earn".

  12. Margaret F. said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    I've noticed that many people in my area (southern Illinois) have difficulty with words where the letter l comes next to another consonant. I hear them separate the two consonants with an extra vowel, as in rill-it-er (realtor) or bur-gyu-ler (burglar) or jew-ler-y. The same thing happens sometimes with the letter r. An extra vowel is inserted in ma-son-ar-y (masonry), though the troublesome r is simply omitted in libary.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

    Thanks. I keep forgetting that Americans interpret the letter i as the diphthong /ai/. I was imagining "iurn" pronounced as "'e earn" or perhaps "yearn".

  14. Faith said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

    When my mother arrived in Canada from the US (she's a native New Yorker), she was quite disturbed to hear people talk about "nucular subsiduaries." For many years she maintained that this was a purely Canadian pronunciation. She was quite surprised later on to discover it in American speech. This leads me to believe that it is something less geographic and more class or education-related, but of course that is pure speculation until SOMEONE does that thesis.

  15. Bloix said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

    DC Metro drivers routinely announce that the train is stopping at Judishuary Square.

  16. Robert F said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    Iron is also sometimes pronounced with a triphthong. Being a non-rhotic speaker, it wasn't clear to me that the pronunciation of iron originated from metathesis, because it could also have come from some kind of mid-word r deletion. However it becomes clear in the rhotic pronunciation.

  17. D. Wilson said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

    Rest assured that "nucular medicine" is alive and well, and plenty prevalent, [even?] among persons who routinely deal with nuclear medicine.

  18. Randy said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

    I had a roommate who routinely bashed Bush for his nucular pronunciation. His father was a Big Deal in Candesco, a nuclear research company that "provides management and technical services to the energy industry, primarily in the nuclear field." I figured he'd have some authority on the matter. So I was surprised, especially after having heard my roommate's criticisms, to hear his father say nucular.

  19. Graham said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    Some Scots distinguish "iron" the metal from "iron" the clothes-flattening tool, by pronouncing one of them as 'eye-ron' (with schwa in the second syllable) and the other as 'irn' (with -i as in "ire").

  20. ajay said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    It comes to mind that "jewellery" makes more sense as a spelling, because it's formed from "jeweller" – as "ironmongery" from "ironmonger", "stationery" from "stationer", "haberdashery" etc. It's the stuff you get from a jeweller, not stuff that includes jewels.

  21. Irene said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    Adam Trotter said that his father "has enormous difficulty enunciating the 'correct' version" of nuclear.

    Am I to understand that Mr. Trotter, Sr is unable to pronounce "new clear". How would he say, I finished installing the new, clear window? I finished installing the new, cular window?

  22. Rick Geissal said,

    May 18, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    The fact – or artifact – that a Hahvahd graduate student in 1976 did not understand "No Nukes" does not show that "nukes" was not regularly used in the 1960's … in anti-nuclear missile/bomb protests. It shows that one person was unfamiliar with that usage.

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