Rick Perry’s Pronunciation Problem

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During a particularly heated exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at last week’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, the governor of Texas attacked the former governor of Massachusetts for using a landscaping company in 2006 that employed undocumented immigrants. “You hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year,” Perry said. “And the idea that you stand here before us and you talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.”

That’s not exactly what he said. What Perry actually said was: “You hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and you talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the heighth of hypocrisy.”

Now, if you were to look up “heighth” in the dictionary, I promise you’d find nothing, for the simple reason that “heighth” is not a word. Still, when Gov. Perry said it nobody seemed to notice. So you have to ask yourself: Are we so numb to politicians’ malapropisms, mispronunciations and assaults on the English language after eight years of George W. Bush that we just don’t hear them anymore?

Perry’s mispronunciation is a common phenomenon in Texas. For the two years I’ve been covering Austin city politics I’ve sat through countless Zoning Commission, Planning Commission and City Council meetings where seemingly everyone pronounced “height” with an imaginary “h.”

So what’s going on here? Some kind of mass linguistic psychosis—or groupthink on a statewide scale?

No, according to Lars Hinrichs, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Texas English Project. He told me that people who throw an “h” at the end of “height” are just heirs to a longstanding, though idiosyncratic, linguistic and phonological tradition.

Hinrichs explained it this way (my apologies to anyone who knows anything about linguistics; I will try my best):

Words like “height” and “width” are the result of a morphological process whereby a suffix is added to an adjective to make a noun. So “high” plus “t” equals “height,” and “wide” plus “th” equals “width.” The phonological term for the hard “t” sound is the Alveolar Stop; for the softer “th,” the Interdental Fricative.

For unknown reasons, in Rick Perry’s rural West Texas dialect the same adjective-to-noun process was applied to “high” as it was to “wide.” Since the community was most likely isolated at some point in the 18th or 19th century and didn’t interact with other dialect communities, that process became routine. The “th” suffix—and the Drawling West Texas Good Ol’ Boy Interdental Fricative—stuck, for good, on “high.”

That’s how the governor of Texas, who is running for the most important job in the known universe, came to pronounce the word “height” like a 3-year-old with a lisp.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.