The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s NYOOZE to us

Q: Your posting on pronouncing “news” as NYOOZE reminded me of my undergraduate music studies. As a voice student, I had to take a one-semester course in diction, where we learned that NYOOZE was the correct pronunciation. In fact, we learned that whenever a long “u” sound follows any of the consonants in the phrase “Daniel Sitteth,” it should be pronounced with a “y” sound. So words like “lute” and “tune” should be pronounced LYOOT and TYOON. This comes from  Madeleine Marshall’s book on diction for singers.

A: Thanks for the interesting footnote. We weren’t familiar with Marshall’s book, The Singer’s Manual of English Diction, which was first published in 1953. It’s still in print and widely used.

When she died in 1993, at the age of 93, her obituary in the New York Times described the work as “a standard guide on the subject.”

We found an online overview of the book that has this advice for choral singers (the “j” in the pronunciation key is a “y” sound):

“Syllables spelled with u or ew, where the u or ew comes after the consonants d, n, l, s, t, or th (mnemonic device: ‘Daniel Sitteth’) are pronounced [ju], e.g., duty, due, dew, during, new, knew, lute, prelude, suit, assume, tune, stupid, student, enthuse. (See Chapter 36 for these rules and further examples).”

Madeleine Marshall Simon, who was known professionally as Madeleine Marshall, was a singing coach and concert pianist. She taught diction to singers at Juilliard for more than half a century, from 1935 to 1986.

Her pupils, according to her obituary, included Lily Pons, Leontyne Price, and Lauritz Melchior. Her husband was Robert A. Simon, a writer, a librettist, and a longtime music critic for The New Yorker. He died in 1981.

Of course, there’s singing pronunciation and there’s spoken pronunciation.

We’re pretty sure that Marshall would not have advised students of speaking elocution to pronounce “lute” as LYOOT or “tune” as TYOON. But clarity and uniformity of pronunciation are especially important in vocal music.

In discussing the value of clarity, Marshall laments the singer who sounds “as if he had a hot potato in his mouth …. as if he had a mouthful of mush … as if his mouth were full of marbles.”

“One of the purposes of this manual,” she writes, “is to help singers remove the potatoes, mush, and marbles from their songs in English. … It’s a book about singing in English and isn’t tended as a guide to anything else.”

Her pronunciation manual, she says, also aims at uniformity. In performance, each word must be pronounced exactly the same way by every singer.

If different characters in an opera, for instance, say the same word differently, she writes, “This disparity in pronunciation is disconcerting to an audience.”

But she stresses that she’s not concerned with ordinary spoken English: “The recommendation of this English for singing is, of course, no criticism of the English spoken in any given area.”

“Your personal speech,” she says, “is your own prerogative.”

Check out our books about the English language