Eugene Volokh wants to know what’s so bad about GWB’s habit of pronouncing the word “nuclear” as “nucular.” He answers his own question: since pronunciation is arbitrary, and, in English, only very loosely tied to spelling, there’s nothing really wrong with it. He calls it (using the word very precisely) a “shibboleth.” Yes, he says, you should teach a child to say “nuclear,” but only to defend him against being looked down on by petty snobs.

I respectfully dissent.

For a language to be useful as a communications medium, it needs rules: of grammar, of diction, of orthography, of pronunciation. Yes, of course the rules are always changing, and any one of them could change without substantial loss, but if they change too fast the language gets to be a less powerful and flexible medium. (Linguistic inertia also helps preserve the value of the existing stock of written literature; we’ve now virtually lost Chaucer, for example.) That makes linguistic conservatism a virtue. Moreover, loving the language — wishing to speak it and write it well, and to enjoying it well spoken and written — means caring about its rules, and therefore being reluctant to change them. (Alisdair MacIntyre would say that speaking a language well is a “practice”: a partially rule-governed activity that people may engage in at first for purely extrinsic reasons, but eventually at least in part for its intrinsic rewards. [See his After Virtue.])

Linguistic conservatism is a boon when it helps defend useful distinctions, such as that between “imply” and “infer” or “comprise” and “compose” or “currently” and “presently.” (It can also help defend against the tendency for the language and political discourse to degenerate together, the tendency that was Orwell’s theme in “Politics and the English Language” and the “Newspeak Dictionary” in Nineteen Eighty-Four.) The same conservatism is a problem when it prevents needed innovation: my fellow pedants and I are fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the use of plural pronouns in place of the neuter singular personal pronouns English lacks, without proposing any alternative. We’re doing it because “A person should be able to do anything they choose” just sounds wrong, dammit! I admit that it’s a good thing we will lose, though I still insist it would be a better thing to create a new word for the new use.

[Lingistic conservatism can coexist with the deliberate use of demotic forms for emphasis, or as allusions to idiomatic expressions, in speech or informal writing. Breaking a rule one usually keeps is one way to underline a point, and it rather calls attention to the rule than weakens it.]

Of course it is true that social snobbery gives linguistic conservatism much of its force, and that the need to conform to “correct” usage is one of the burdens faced by people attempting upward social mobility, and by immigrants. It’s possible, and praiseworthy, to insist on correctness and still cut people who face special barriers in achieving it an appropriate amount of slack. (And to give special admiration to those who surmount such barriers: Eugene himself, for example, who writes Engish, his second language, much better than most native speakers.) All “high culture” rests on the same somewhat ugly social foundation: that’s Pierre Bourdieu’s point. Still, it’s possible to prefer Bach to Mancini, or Rembrandt to paintings on black velvet, or Shakespeare to sitcoms, and to think those preferences a reflection of something not entirely arbitrary, without sneering at those whose upbringing didn’t give them an honest shot at acquiring their full share of the human cultural heritage.

But hereditary rich guys who went to Andover and Yale are not part of any such specially burdened group. All of GWB’s great-grandfathers probably pronounced “nuclear” correctly, or would have if they had any need for the word. His pronunciation reflects a choice: he’s decided to throw in his lot with the ignorant as against the learned. There has been some admiring blog chatter about the broader strategy here, sometimes called “cultural populism.” It takes advantage of the fact that the “uncultured” resent being looked down on by the “cultured,” and that the “cultured” tend to lean left. (That’s part of the cultural pattern David Brooks calls “bourgeois bohemianism.”) By identifying culturally with NASCAR fans, right-wing millionaires hope to deflect the rage the economically struggling might otherwise feel against the wealthy, and redirect it against the cultured instead.

If you think about it for a minute, it’s about as ugly a platform as one could possibly run on: “Vote for me, and I promise not to try to be wiser than you are, to know anything you don’t know, or to enjoy any pleasure you don’t share.” And of course one of its consequences is to encourage the young of all social classes to reject the high culture, and the linguistic habits that go with it. In the background, I can hear de Tocqueville weeping. Those high-culture habits are valuable, both because they can make life more pleasant and interesting and because knowing things, and being in the habit of reasoning carefully, can sometimes come in handy. A generation ago, for example, it would have been hard to imagine a more useless piece of “Mandarin knowledge” than the distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Islam.

And while I think Eugene’s anti-snobbery is perfectly sincere, I doubt that the practitioners of cultural populism would refrain from severely criticizing an African-American politician who insisted on using the less inflected and irregular “Ebonic” verb forms (I be, you be, he be, she be, we be, they be) rather than the Standard English forms. “What sort of example are you setting for the children? Do you want to keep them trapped in a linguistic ghetto?” And of course they’d deny any racist intent in doing so. But if “nucular” is all right, what’s wrong with “They be OK?” In each case, the meaning is clear enough; all that’s violated is an arbitrary convention.

Have the cultured brought this on themselves, by being rude to those they think of as inferior? Sure. And is it hard to think that being cultured is better than being ignorant without having that turn into contempt for those less fortunate? You bet. (Though of course that’s true of just about any good quality or any possession.) But I’d still rather have a President who shamefacedly says he smoked pot but didn’t inhale than one who brags that he went to Yale but dint larn nuthin.


Three new comments by Eugene and some futher reflections by the undersigned.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: