Poetic Feet and Mayor Pete

If you’re at all like me, at one point or another in your education, you had to learn poetic meter — all that stuff about iambic pentameter and whatnot. I think I had to memorize all of the different types of “feet” in seventh grade: iambs, troches, dactyls, and so on.

At the time I thought that learning all of the different types of feet — the technical name for which is prosody — was completely useless. It turns out, however, that understanding prosody has one fairly specific use: explaining the difficulty that many have when it comes to pronouncing the last name of Presidential hopeful “Mayor” Pete Buttigieg.

Needless to say, the spelling of Buttigieg itself raises issues with respect to pronunciation; it’s certainly not as straightforward as “Warren” or “Sanders.” To address this problem early in his political career, my understanding is that the politician’s campaign issued a fairly straightforward pronunciation guide: Buttigieg sounds like Buddha Judge.

If they had left it that, all would have been relatively well–at least insofar as getting comfortable with pronouncing Mayor Pete’s last name is concerned. After all, we can all say “Buddha,” and we can all say “Judge,” and, perhaps most importantly, we can say the two words in rapid succession without tripping over either of them.

The problem, however, is that Buddha Judge wasn’t quite right. The “uh” sounds needed to be “eh” sounds. Thus, a subsequent note went out to the press. To wit (and in my own words): Instead of Buddha Judge, it’s actually Boot Edge Edge.

While this new pronunciation guide solved one problem, it caused another. This is where understanding prosody comes in handy — at least insofar as it gives us some terminology we can use to describe the problem.

While the original guide to pronouncing Buttigieg may have gotten the vowel sounds wrong (giving us “uh” when “eh” would have been more appropriate), what it got right was the type of “poetic foot” we should use when pronouncing Mayor Pete’s last name; it’s what’s known as a dactyl, which is to say that the three syllables in his name follow an accented-unaccented-unaccented pattern. Other dactylic words include battleship, endocrine, and fallacy.

By way of contrast, what Mayor Pete’s campaign gained in correcting for the pronunciation of the vowel sounds, they lost in (for lack of a better term) poetic footage. Boot Edge Edge consists of three accented syllables and does not roll off the tongue easily.

Yes, we can say “Boot,” and we can say “Edge,” and we can also say “Edge” again, but three accented syllables rarely follow each other in nature. Perhaps this is why my seventh-grade teacher never gave us a word for the phenomenon. But it does have a name. It’s a molossus.

Not only does lack of practice make it, perhaps, somewhat difficult for some people (myself included) to pronounce a molossus like Boot Edge Edge but, more to the point, that pronunciation is prosodically incorrect. As noted earlier, just as Buttigieg should be pronounced with “eh” sounds instead of “uh” sounds, it should also be pronounced as a dactyl and not a molossus.

Unfortunately, there’s no combination of words in the English language that will give us both the correct vowel sounds and the correct prosody as a reference point for pronouncing Buttigieg. I’m slightly tempted to say that it starts with “booty” and ends with “jedge,” but the long “e” sound in booty is still not quite right and “jedge” is not a word.

On the other hand, my purpose here in all of this wasn’t so much to provide a solution as to explain the problem in the kind of excruciating detail that only my seventh-grade English teacher would truly appreciate. As far as solutions go, I’ll leave that to Mayor Pete’s campaign team.

Screen Shot 2020-02-06 at 11.12.20 AM

There’s a reason the banner says “Pete” and not “Buttigieg.”

 

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