March 22, 2005

Metathesis redux

Arnold Zwicky over at Language Log writes today (well, late last night, actually) about the pronunciation nucular as used by an awful lot of people. He's quite dismissive of the metathesis explanation that I and others have put forth before:

Metathesis of the /l/ and /i/ of /nukliər/ would give /nukilər/, with primary accent on the first syllable and secondary accent on the second (as in nuclear).  To get towards nucular, that second syllable would have to lose its accent (this is not particularly unlikely), yielding /nukIlər/ or /nukələr/.  This isn't all the way home, though, because there's still that /y/ to pick up.  It looks like Safire is assuming a metathesis and then a reshaping to match other -cular words, which would supply a /y/.  But direct reshaping is a more parsimonious account of the phenomenon; the metathesis is unnecessary (as well as insufficient).

But here's the thing: even when I'm pronouncing the word "correctly", it's more like /'nuk.lə.jər/, although the second syllable's vowel is perhaps a bit higher than schwas I produce in other contexts. It's definitely quite different from the vowel /i/ as in "beet" or for that matter "pricklier" (which is /'prɪər/). The reason for this difference is probably morphological as he indicates, but once this still-"correct" pronunciation for "nuclear" is in place, it seems like it's a straight shot over to "nucular" by way of metathesis.

Of course, I still haven't read Geoff Nunberg's book Going Nucular, which Zwicky's post references; it's been on my to-do list for ages. If he's already addressed this argument, I guess I'll just feel dumb. :P

"it really sounds like you're trying to put a nail in a wall using only a cheese danish and a variety of expletives." --Neal Groothuis

Posted by blahedo at 3:14pm on 22 Mar 2005
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