donald-trump-1269307_640We can learn an important fact about English pronunciation from the controversy over whether US Presidential candidate Donald Trump has invented a new adverb, bigly. Britain’s Daily Telegraph thought this was the case:

Actually it’s hard to hear the end of Trump’s sentence there because of the applause. Here’s a clearer utterance which has been declared online to be bigly:

  That will be proven out, big____.

I myself thought for a while that Trump was ending many of his sentences with bigly, until I realised that it was more likely to be the phrase big league, with a final /g/. Wiktionary lists big league not only as a noun (referring to a major league, typically in sport) but also as an adjective (e.g. He made a real big league play) and as an adverb meaning ‘to a significant degree’. It’s as an adverb that Trump uses it.

With big league in mind, it’s easier to hear a final /g/ in many of Trump’s utterances. Here’s a sentence from his first debate with Hillary Clinton, then the two instances of big league slightly slowed down:

So how does the controversy arise in the first place? One factor is phonetic. The sound /g/ is a ‘stop’, which means the breath from the lungs is completely stopped; in /g/, the back of the tongue is raised up against the rear palate to stop the air. When /g/ is followed by a vowel, the stopped air bursts out as the closure is released. But if there isn’t a following vowel, American speakers frequently suppress or weaken the release burst; and without their release burst, stop sounds are harder to hear. Listen again to the first audio clip above and hear how there’s no audible /t/-burst at the end of either that or out. British and other accents can do this sort of thing, but it’s more general in AmE.

Another factor is that it’s relatively uncommon to hear big league as a sentence-final adverb; big time is a more common equivalent. On the other hand Trump does tend to talk in simple, large-scale terms (great, huge, etc.), and an adverbial form of the basic word big fits in with that.

Further notes

If Trump is occasionally saying bigly, which I doubt, he is in fact resurrecting a Middle English word, as in

There cam a yonge man bygly made.
–Sir Thomas Malory, 15th century

Dictionaries often write league and -ly with different vowels, /iː/ in league and /i/ in -ly. The fact that people on both sides of the Atlantic have heard league as -ly tends to support the view that they’re really just the same vowel.

3 replies
  1. Andrew Usher
    Andrew Usher says:

    Again there is a phonetic component to this mis-hearing that I think has been missed so far, probably because it doesn’t fit in to the conventional picture of English phonemes.

    In much English (including mine) – I don’t know if Americans do it more – the velar stops can be weakened to fricatives (with the usual velar/palatal allophony) in weak positions. This is probably encouraged by the fact that English has so distinct velar/palatal fricatives, so the difference normally isn’t heard. Although I expect this process to occur mainly with a consonant following, it could also happen finally. Certainly Trump (idiosyncratically) has ‘big league’ as a set phrase with the second syllable destressed, thus his difference is not great. In many of his utterances, including the one in the video shown here, he seems clearly to use the fricative [ʝ] which can almost vanish, as in the audio clip. Indeed, modern ‘-ly’ evolved from an original -lig [lɪʝ], so a fused ‘big-league’ becoming actually ‘bigly’ would only be repeating history.

    It was the word ‘league’, actually, in which I first discovered this phenomenon. When listening to myself I realised that I pronouced the ‘g’ differently in ‘league’ and ‘leagues’, i.e. [lig], [liʝz]. I do not always weaken here but the possibility seems to be categorical: I distinguish ‘lock’ and ‘loch’ in the singular but can’t in the plural. Is this ever true in Britain?

    Also this proves the distinction between [ʝ] and [j] is phonemic: as above [liʝz] can be ‘leagues’ but [lijz] could of course only be leas/lees/Lee’s. Care should be taken then in transcribing other languages, e.g. the Germans usually use [ʝ] for their /j/, but given a similar possible allophony in some dialects, this is less precise than [j].

    I am not so sure that the _voiced_ (lenis) plosives are so often unreleased. If so, they (if completely devoiced as they so often are) would be completely merged with the corresponding fortis, and the difference remain only in (possibly) the length of the preceding vowel. But that’s actually been asserted as a possibility for English, so I can’t dismiss it.

    Agree of course that the two vowels can be considered the same.

    k_over_hbarc at

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Many thanks for your details, Andrew. This comes under my statement that speakers frequently ‘suppress or weaken’ the stops (these posts are brief and relatively non-technical). I think in German we find final xs -> ks, but I suspect xs remains in Scottish English. I should check.

      • Andrew Usher
        Andrew Usher says:

        Well, I think a fricative (if you agree that’s what is heard here) is not adequately described as an unreleased stop – you did say ‘suppress or weaken’ _the release burst_. If the latter only were heard, one would expect ‘big leak’ to be as common a mishearing as ‘bigly’. I think people first perceive ‘bigly’ from fricative realisations, then easily generalise it to all of Trump’s uses because of his stress pattern.

        As to your last point, the German /xs/ -> /ks/ is supposed to be a historical process no longer productive that is simply not reflected in spelling. Inflected forms should retain distinct /xs/. However, my locks/lochs (were I writing for Americans I’d use Bach’s/box) is as likely to be /xs/ as /ks/, so it’s not one way.

        (I wish I could post audio clips here.)

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