Nucular riposte

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Steve Pinker understates the case when he says that there's a master's thesis in "nucular" studies: I envision dissertations, conferences, endowed chairs, journals, broken marriages…

Actually, I want to comment about just one argument Steve makes, this in passing, about George W. Bush's speech. Steve says that "People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers." There's clearly an important sense in which this is true: it depends on what the meaning of "accent" is. Certainly some basic phonological pattern is fixed by late adolescence, along with lexical classes — my upbringing in the New York suburbs left me with different vowels in dog and frog, long and gong, and in the initial syllables of hamburger and hamlet, for example, and that's going to persist in whatever particular phonetic realization I give those words. But my range of variation has broadened a lot since then — I get more general American (or general East Coast) on some occasions, and more sidewalks-of-New-York on others. And I don't think it makes sense to think of these variations as add-ons, corrections, affectations, or in any way less "authentic" than what I grew up speaking. It all feels like me by now. 

In this connection, I don't think it's likely that W grew up speaking as he does. For one thing, his Texas accent is a lot more prominent that of his brother Jeb, even though Jeb also grew up in Midland and Houston and moreover stayed in Texas to do his college and law school while W went to Yale and Harvard Business School. They may have the same basic Texas phonology — the raising of front vowels before nasals, the backing of /a/ before /r/, for example — but  W "drops his g's" more often, takes monophthongization of /ay/ much further, and generally conveys a more down-home impression:


And while it's of course possible that Jeb is the one who has corrected or adapted his speech, I think it's more likely that W adapted his to the west Texas norm, particularly after he was defeated for Congress in 1978 by an opponent who depicted him as an Easterner out-of-touch with local values. But I don't think W's accent is "fake" — that's part of who he is now, and I imagine it's how he'd sound if you woke him up in the middle of the night. 

My guess — and of course I have no direct evidence for this — is that W's adoption of "nucular" also came around this time. The fact is that his dad doesn't say it that way, and it's a word that would have been a lot more common around the G. H. W. Bush place than in the average American household. (You wonder how his parents would have reacted if W had ventured the "nucular" pronunciation around the family dinner table.) And it doesn't seem plausible that W would have adopted the "nucular" pronunciation from his adolescent peers in Midland — I mean, how often are they going to be using that word in the first place?  But on reflection, maybe "faux bubba" was unfair. At least, if you woke him up in the middle of the night he'd probably he'd say "nucular," too. 

(One reason why this business of "authenticity" is important is that I think you can make a similar point about Obama's "blackcent," as some people have called it, criticizing him for adopting a form of speech the circumstances of his upbringing don't entitle him to. I don't know how much of that he might already have had in Hawaii — certainly g-dropping wouldn't have been an alien feature, even to students at Punahou — but even if he acquired it all in Chicago, that doesn't make it fake or inauthentic. Why should our linguistic self-fashioning have to stop in adolescence while the rest of it can persist over a lifetime? And why should "inauthenticity" be held against you only when you're shifting away from the standard? But maybe this point deserves a more ample discussion than a parenthetical allows…)

A couple of other small points. Re Steve's observations about the pronunciations he heard at the Naval War College: As I think I mentioned, the "nucular" pronunciation is also common among military and defense people who almost certainly know it's considered incorrect. My sense is that for at least some of these people, this is a sort of anti-affectation — by which I mean that if you ask them about it, they'll say they damn well know how the word is supposed to be pronounced. I have an old college friend, an upper-middle-class New Jerseyite with an MIT PhD who works for the DOE, who makes a point of saying "nucular." When I asked him if he referred to "nucular families," as well, he said, "No, I only use 'nucular' when I'm referring to nukes." And in this connection, I wonder if nuke mightn't in fact have influenced the pronunciation of at least some of these speakers, even if it couldn't be responsible for, say, the way Eisenhower said the word.

Carter actually says something like "nukeeuh," which is probably more loss of the "l" in his Georgia speech than a variant of "nucular." 

Oh, and Richard Lowenberg has posted a list of well-known people who "should know better" who have been heard to say "nucular." 


  1. Kellen said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 7:56 am

    just want to say i love how this is developing. if anything i wonder why it never came up to such an extent long before now.

    anyway, keep it up.

  2. Brandon said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    I should probably know better too, but it's just how I pronounce it, a learned habit. I still don't think it's very wrong…

  3. language hat said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    I still don't think it's very wrong…

    It isn't wrong at all, it's just not fully accepted yet. But there are still people who don't accept "He graduated from Columbia," so I wouldn't worry about it.

  4. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    I'm reminded (by the Carter pronunciation) that I hear from time to time, mostly on the radio, an intermediate pronunciation, more along the lines of NOOK'l'r, as if the speaker were reading the word as nucle-ar. The ell is associated with the preceding rather than following sound, rather like scruple.

    My Mac's dictionary (New Oxford American) gives |ˈn(j)uklɪ(ə)r| |ˈn(j)ukjələr| and then goes on to say, "A variant pronunciation, |ˈn(y)oōkyələr|, has been used by many, but is widely regarded as unacceptable."

    Notice that the unacceptable variant isn't all that far removed from the second "standard" pronunciation, which strikes me as decidedly nonstandard.

  5. Eyebrows McGee said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    "but even if he acquired it all in Chicago, that doesn't make it fake or inauthentic."

    Sometimes you even acquire them against your will. When I lived in the South I acquired some southern pronunciation of numbers on purpose in self defense — nobody could understand numbers I said over the phone otherwise — but living in downstate Illinois now (having grown up in Chicago), I find myself acquiring some downstate pronunciations and non-standard local constructions that make me groan internally, as I grew up hearing them mocked. I don't WANT them, but they happen anyway!

    (Luckily my non-standard Chicago constructions aren't that unusual here, though they were an endless source of mirth for my friends in the South who couldn't believe my mother never taught me how propositions worked.)

  6. J. said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Paralinguistically, I just want to know when and how GWB acquired the habit of smiling whilst delivering serious (even heated) statements. See above clip, esp. after 2:40.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    Eyebrows McGee is right on the money – this is not something that people are necessarily doing on purpose. After 25 years in the UK, I don't sound the way I did when I first got here, and my accent varies somewhat depending on where I am and who I'm talking to. Some of it I'm aware of, but in an after-the-fact kind of way, observing my own speech the way I'd observe anybody's (even if you wake me up in the middle of the night I'm still a linguist). But some of it I'm probably not aware of, and a lot of it is definitely not fully under my control.

    Also, there are a lot of individual differences in this kind of adaptation. I've observed lots of American long-term expats in the UK, who all adjust in roughly the same ways (like pronouncing /t/ as voiceless in words like city and water), but they adjust to very different degrees. Are the ones who adjust less somehow "more authentic"? Less self-conscious? More homesick? There must be lots of personality and other variables involved. Until we've got several of those Master's theses to refer to, I don't think we can be very confident about the extent to which Bush, or Palin, or Obama, are faking it. Or fakin' it, as the case may be.

  8. Kevin Iga said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    My mother came from a family of 14 kids, and I've met almost all of them. They all grew up in Hawaii (more or less), and their speech patterns are very different from each other. I've known other sibling pairs who have very different accents as well, usually those growing up in an area whose local dialect is not the prestige one, and one sibling adopts it while the other takes up the more prestige dialect (e.g. Texan brothers, where one sibling has a strong Texas accent, and the other uses TV Network Standard).

  9. John Cowan said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    In addition, some people are unconscious mimics. I'm one of them; I have to work very hard not to adopt some of the accent features of the people I'm talking with, and this was true long before I knew very much about modern English accents. I'll never forget the girl from India — we were both in our teens — who told me I had a "light American accent", presumably meaning that while I was talking to her, I sounded a little bit more like her than I would otherwise. I assured her that if I sounded a little bit Indian, I didn't mean to.

  10. Shira said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

    I wanted to thank you for making this point about Barack Obama. My guess (as an Illinoisian who has watched his political career more or less from its beginning) is that he learned some of his speech mannerisms in his community organizing days. This is particularly true of his oratory style. And why not? The Chicago of those days was filled with powerful African American political orators, including Harold Washington and Jessie Jackson (Sr.). And of course Mr. Obama must have encountered Martin Luther King — on tape if not in person. Oration is something you have to learn, maybe to apprentice in, no matter how great your native talent. It would not be surprising if, as he honed his skills, he also picked up the cadences and even pronunciation of those he admired. There's nothing inauthentic about that.

  11. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    I spent the first five years of my life in Cleveland, Ohio. From there my family moved to Windsor, Ontario, and when I was ten we moved to San Antonio, Texas. There is no Canada and no Texas in my spoken accent. I made a strong point in Windsor of avoiding such obvious Canadianisms as "aboot" and "bean" (as past participle of "be"). Similarly in San Antonio, where about half my acquaintances spoke without much of a Texas accent. My experience therefore suggests that one can control to a considerable extent the accent one winds up with.

    During my San Antonio days I became bi-accentual. I could put on a Texas accent that was more Texan than Dubya's. I turned it on and off as needed. I've long since lost it and would have a mighty struggle at my age (not quite as old as John McCain) to regain it.

  12. Irene said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    Brandon said about nucular – I still don't think it's very wrong. And Hat said – It isn't wrong at all, it's just not fully accepted yet.

    By this reasoning, there need be no correlation between a word's spelling and its understandable pronunciation. Why not pronounce nuclear "nuceelar" or "snucear". After all, how wrong can it be to add a letter (u) and remove a letter (e) when pronouncing a word? When does it become unrecognizable?

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