the thin line between error and mere variation II: going nucular

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Jun 28 19:37:05 UTC 2004

Ordinary people, faced with what are for them deviant, "wrong", bits of
language, see nothing but a mistake, period.  They are resistant to the
linguist's idea that there could be a rationale for the "mistake", even
a system to it, or that, in fact, the very same thing could result from
different sources or represent different systems.  (This attitude
presents a tough challenge when we teach beginning linguistics courses
-- not only when we talk about dialects, but also when we talk about
language acquisition.  One of the hardest lessons for many students is
that instead of saying what's wrong, what people "can't" or "won't" do,
they should be describing what people *do*, and making hypotheses about
*why* they do that.)

Geoff Nunberg's "Going Nucular" piece makes a significant advance in
trying to get these ideas out to linguistically unsophisticated people.
  First, it makes an inadvertent/advertent distinction (via the labels
"typo" vs. "thinko"); some people say "nucular" because they've
inadvertently reshaped the pronunciation to fit a common -ular pattern
for learned words (tabular, globular, tubular, vernacular, oracular,
popular, spectacular, oracular, etc., but especially molecular), but
other people say it because they think that (at least in some contexts)
this is the way the word is pronounced.  What Nunberg doesn't stress is
that these days virtually everybody who says "nucular" is in the second
group; though the support of other -ular words helps to make "nucular"
sound right, these people are saying it because other people say it.
(The same point can be made for almost any innovative usage.  Though
hypercorrection surely played some role in the development of
nominative coordinate object pronouns -- the famous "between Kim and I"
-- for some time now people with this usage have it because that's what
they hear, with some frequency, from the relevant people.)

Second, Nunberg doesn't stop there, but speculates some about the
possibility of different systems for the use of "nucular".  In
particular, he cites at least one speaker for whom "nucular" refers
specifically to nukes, with "nuclear" used in expressions like "nuclear
family" and "the nuclear material of the cell".  This is a tremendous
advance, with many analogies in other areas (there are several
different systems of nominative coordinate object pronouns, several
different systems of multiple negation, and so on), but it stops well
short of telling the whole truth.  To do that, the whole discussion has
to be re-framed.

Instead of talking about "nucular" as a mere thinko, we need to treat
it as a variant pronunciation for a word, an alternative to "nuclear".
Just like alternative pronunciations for: radiator, apricot, tomato,
envelope, and many, many other words (with item-specific variants). So,
put aside judgmental attitudes for a while, and ask how people use
these alternative pronunciations.  There are five types of systems:

Type 1: "nuclear" all the way.  (This is my system, for what that's

Type 2: free variation, or as close as people come to this.  While you
might be able to discern reasons for one choice or the other in
particular contexts, for the most part the motivations for choosing one
variant over the other are too context-specific, too idiosyncratic, too
much in the moment: inscrutable, in fact.  As far as I can tell, that's
my situation for the /a/ vs. /E/ pronunciations for "envelope", and for
the cursive vs. the printed variants for the capital letter <A>, even
in my first name.

Type 3: variation according to context, say according to formality,
with "nuclear" as the formal, fancy, or scientific pronunciation, and
"nucular" as the informal, homey, everyday pronunciation.  My own
pronunciation of "tomato" is mostly /a/ (thanks to living with an
/a/-speaker for decades and to residence in the U.K. for significant
periods), but more and more I'm inclined to use /e/ when speaking to

Type 4: variation according to semantics, as in the nucular-nukes
variety reported by Nunberg.

Type 5: "nucular" all the way; the -ular pronunciation is *the*
pronunciation for the word.  There are, I belief, very many speakers of
this sort.  They understand that other people say the word differently,
just as I understand that some people have /ae/ in "radiator" or
"apricot", instead of my /e/.  That's ok for them, but what I do is ok
for me.

Nunberg suggests that George W. Bush might be a Type 4 speaker, but he
could well be a Type 5 speaker.  Instances of the "nuclear"
pronunciation are so rare in his speech as to preclude the other three

There's a further dimension to all of this, namely the question of
intentionality, or conscious choice.  Nunberg is inclined to see GWB as
having *chosen* the "nucular" variant, to project a particular persona;
in even less neutral phrasing, GWB "puts on" his folksy, Texas-rancher,
hypermasculine persona, with the linguistic accoutrements that go along
with that.

I don't doubt that some people sometimes consciously re-shape their
behavior in certain respects.  But I think that most accommodations to
social varieties and most constructions of personas via behavior
(linguistic and otherwise) happen below the level of consciousness,
usually with very little awareness of what features are being chosen or
why.  (In a sense, this *has* to be true.  There are just too many bits
of behavior for choices among them to be under conscious control.  This
is especially true for bits of linguistic behavior, which have to be
produced in tiny amounts of time, many at the same time.)

Some years ago it was pointed out to me that when I'm trying to be very
precise in talking about linguistics, I use dental rather than alveolar
articulations for consonants.  Eventually, this astute observer (Ann
Daingerfield Zwicky) noted that I'd never done that before I went to
graduate school.  After some reflection on this odd state of affairs,
we realized that I was reproducing the articulations of my graduate
school adviser, Morris Halle, in my Serious Linguist persona.  All
entirely unconsciously, I assure you.

Anecdotes like this could be multiplied endlessly.  There's even some
research on the matter.  As a result, I'd be very very cautious in
attributing someone's ensemble of linguistic features to conscious
choice.  GWB could come to his pronunciation "nucular", his extremely
high use of "-in'" over "-ing", and so on without ever thinking any of
it through (and without consciously rejecting standard or formal
variants).  He could get there just by behaving like the kind of person
he believes himself to be.  Like, in fact, the rest of us.

arnold (zwicky at

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