The New Clear Option

I’d like to make a quick pass of today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip for December 26, 2013

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for December 26, 2013

First, I think it’s funny. I get the joke, and it’s a good one. SMBC is a great comic, and one that I read regularly through my RSS reader. That’s my disclaimer, since I’m about to pick nits, but they do not in any way make the comic unfunny or unworthy of your own subscription.

But: “nuclear” does not have only two syllables, even in the standard pronunciations. The IPA options are [ˈnu kli ɚ], [ˈnju klɪ ə], or [ˈnu kjə lɚ] (see below). The two-syllable option I assume would be with the diphthong [ˈnu klɪɚ], as if it were “new clear”. To me, it sounds similar to the difference between “likelier” and “like Lear”.

The real dig of the comic, though, is at that third option, [ˈnu kjə lɚ], as if the word were spelled “nucular”, which is also a completely different word, the adjective form of “nucule”. Dictionary.com calls applying that pronunciation to “nuclear” an example of metathesis, the transposition of sounds, as when someone pronounces “ask” as if it were “ax”. Merriam-Webstar comes right out and labels it non-standard. Since the George W. Bush presidency, this non-standard pronunciation seems to have become even more vilified or ridiculed, since politics makes anything divisive more appealing, but there are other “non-standard” pronunciations that seem to be making gains toward acceptability.

Merriam-Webster, for example, also labels the pronuciation [ˈɔf tən] for “often” as non-standard, but I hardly ever hear “often” pronounced [ˈɔ fn̩] to rhyme with “soften”, no matter how educated the speaker or what accent they have. Amusingly, the “ax” pronunciation of “ask”, like the “acrosst” pronunciation of “across”, warrants only the label “dialect” or “chiefly dialect”, rather than “non-standard”.

Like the way the letters we use can affect the way we think about sounds (in the recent “Throwing in the Vowel” post), the pronunciations we use can affect the way we think about words. Check out Going Nucular: Language, Politics. and Culture in Confrontational Times for more about this (mis)pronunciation and other spins on words.

—jhunterj

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