Suprene Court

Why do so many smart, sophisticated Supreme Court journalists and commentators convert the “m” to an “n” in “Supreme”? Listen to Marcia Coyle, for example, when she discusses a Supreme Court argument or decision on the PBS NewsHour. She can’t seem to bring herself to say “Supreme” (with an “m”), as if the correct pronunciation were somehow indelicate. She’s not alone: the National Journal’s Stuart Taylor, one of the best and the brightest Supreme Court reporters, likewise says “Suprene Court.” So do some lawyers who practice before the Court, including a few who clerked for Supreme Court Justices. Is it too much to ask that those who refer to the Supreme Court bring their lips together to form an “m” instead of sloppily voicing it as an “n”?



Filed under Beastly Mispronunciations

2 responses to “Suprene Court

  1. Dear GB,

    This is an interesting observation. I get most of my news in print, so I can’t say I’ve yet heard these journalists’ “n” replacement. I am wondering if their production of what you hear as an “n” (at the alveolar ridge, that bony anterior roof-of-the-mouth area right behind your upper two front teeth) rather than “m” (bilabial place of articulation) is in anticipation of the hard “k” sound of “court” (represented orthographically by a “c” here). If so, this instance of “backing” of the sound–moving backward from “m” to “n” in place of articulation–might be assimilation to the hard “k”, which is produced way back in the velum. Or, a linguist might even argue than what you are hearing as an “n” is actually the journalists’ use of the consonant sound “ng” which is commonly called an “angma” (more to follow).

    In English we can describe consonant sounds in terms of three parameters: place of articulation (where we manipulate or restrict airflow), manner of articulation (how was manipulate the airflow), and voicing (whether or not we are vibrating the vocal folds during production).

    Compare, for instance, the sounds /s/ and /z/. These two sounds are exactly the same in terms of place of articulation (your tongue tip is on, or almost on, the alveolar ridge, so they are called “alveolar” in place of articulation–the alveolar ridge is the bony ridge behind your two top teeth, the place where you burn your mouth on pizza) and manner of articulation (they are both called “fricatives” which is the manner class of consonants that have this sort of high velocity, continuous flow of air–you can articulate them for as long as you have air in lungs to exhale; compare this to a /p/ sound, which is called “stop” or “plosive” and it would not be produced accurately with a continuous flow of air, unless you wanted to sound like a 2 year old: “pppppppp…..”). /S/ and /z/ differ only in voicing: one is “voiced” (vocal folds vibrate as you produce it) the other is “voiceless” (vocal folds are not vibrating during production). If you hold out an “s” sound (“ssssss…”) and put your hand on your Adam’s apple, there are no vibrations. Compare this to your production of the /z/ sound with your hand in the same place as you hold the sound out, and you can feel the difference–that vibration is your vocal folds. So /s/ is “voiceless”, /z/ is “voiced”.

    So if we consider the manner class of “nasals” in English–distinguished by the fact that they are sounds for which we permit airflow out through our nasal cavities–we see that we have three nasal sounds in English:



    ng what is often called the “angma”, the symbol for which looks like an orthographic n with a tail like a lowercase g, and which is the nasal sound that sounds like “ng”. Since do not have this computer configured to insert the correct symbol, I will represent the angma as “ng”.

    Most native speakers of English easily understand the “m” and “n” sounds, but angmas are a bit more tricky because we don’t differentiate these sounds in spelling. Of course, English spelling not accurately representing sound is another topic altogether.

    Angmas are the nasal sounds that precede a velar consonant, and in English there are only two velar consonants: k and g. Velar sounds are produced very far back in our vocal tracts, at the “velum” or soft palate. (Say a /k/ and hard /g/ aloud–you might feel them produced farther “back” almost in your throat). So any time there is, in spelling, an “n” before a “k” or hard “g” sound, it’s actually pronounced as an angma–a sort of “ng” sound. So really the second sound in the work “ink”, for instance, is an angma. We represent it with an orthographic “n” but really it’s not the same sound as a “pure”, alveolar “n”. If it were, it would sound like “inn-k” instead of “ingk”. There might be some individual variation, but most linguists would agree that very few people would say “inn-k”. In fact when phonetically transcribing words, most linguistics would transcribe any nasal “n” occurring before a velar sound (k or g) as actually being articulated as an angma (velar in place of articulation), not a true alveolar “n.” Same for the second sound in the word “anxious”–this orthographic “x” is actually a hard “k” plus an “s”…so again, we have a nasal sound occurring before a velar (here, a “k”) and therefore it’s really pronounced as an angma, not a “true” (alveolar) “n”. (It’s not ann-xious; it’s typically pronounced “ang-xious”).

    Enough about angmas. So in the order of “place of articulation”, “manner of articulation”, and “voicing” we can describe the three nasal sounds in English as follows:

    m bilabial, nasal, voiced

    n alveolar, nasal, voiced

    ng velar, nasal, voiced

    So we can see that these three sounds differ only in where they are articulated–in other words, their place of articulation. Their “voicing” and “manner” are the same.

    This (now seemingly tedious) background I am giving is so there might be some context for my thoughts on these journalists’ production of “Suprene Court”. Truly, when produced in isolation, the final sound in “Supreme” is an “m”–a bilabial, as you pointed out. I would be curious to see how these journalists produce “supreme” were it to occur at the end of an utterance, with no other words following it, such as “King Humperdink reigned supreme.” I might hypothesize that they might say a true “m” in these instances. However, if we consider that we don’t pronounce words separately in running speech and therefore many sounds at the beginnings and ends of separate words actually run together, the m in “Supreme Court” is immediately followed by the hard “k”–a velar sound–beginning the word “court”.

    Therefore we might hypothesize that the production of what sounds like an “n” in “Suprene” could either really be an n, and they are moving “backward” in production from a bilabial in order to be closer in approximation to to the upcoming velar sound which is produced farther back in the vocal tract…. OR we might hypothesize that perhaps actually by assimilation and by extension of the rule that most native speakers of English actually produce an angma (a velar nasal) before a velar sound, that they are actually producing an angma here, assimilating to the exact place of articulation of the “k”: Supre/ng/ Court.” So it is “easier” (some would argue, lazy) not to produce a bilabial nasal (m) here because the movement from a bilabial (very front of mouth) to a velar (very back of mouth) is difficult and maybe inefficient in rapid speech.

    This might be the case, as many speakers of English have assimilation naturally with other combinations, such as when they say “in part due to….” often the n becomes an m so that actually they are uttering “impart due to…”, here with the alveolar placement of n actually moving to the front of the mouth, in order to be a bilabial “m” just like the sound coming immediately after, which is bilabial in place of articulation as well (p).

    I’m sorry this is so lengthy. I’m afraid conciseness is something I need to work on. I’m also currently trying to filter out a very loud two-year-old sitting (actually, now standing on the chair) next to me at Panera. What else can you do when Verizon is on strike in New York, and you can’t get the internet installed at home?



  2. Laura, thank you for your insightful, persuasive analysis. With your benign explanation in mind, I doubt that I will react as negatively in the future when I hear someone say “Suprene Court.”


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