Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Usage


Q: In your posting about radio pronunciation, you suggest that few North Americans say NYOOZE for “news.” Actually, an increasing number pronounce it that way. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and most people my age and younger (I’m in my ’30s) say NYOOZE. People who say NOOZE tend to be older or from the Eastern US.

A: We may have spoken a little hastily in that blog posting. You’re right—some Americans do indeed pronounce “news” as if it had a “y” in it: NYOOZE. But the number is not increasing.

Among ordinary speakers of the language, Americans who say NYOOZE are in the minority and their numbers are dwindling, according to people who study these kinds of things.

First, here’s what the dictionaries say.

The two standard dictionaries we use the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), give both pronunciations as standard English without comment—NOOZE and NYOOZE.

The Oxford English Dictionary says British speakers use NYOOZE but Americans use both pronunciations.

Macmillan, which publishes both British and American dictionaries, says speakers in the UK say NYOOZE and those in the US say NOOZE.

Our hunch is that NYOOZE has been regarded as a standard American pronunciation for only a few decades. Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition) has only one pronunciation: NOOZE.

Why does “news” have two pronunciations anyway?

As it happens, “news” is part of a small class of words in which speakers in Britain, and many in the American South, insert an audible “y” sound (linguists call it a palatal glide).

Other examples include “tune,” “duke,” “due,” “tuna,” “Tuesday,” “avenue,” and “stew.” Some interesting scholarship has been done on the subject.

“The pronunciation of such words as tune, duke, and news, it turns out, is one of the most marked differences between Northern and Southern speech,” the linguist Betty S. Phillips wrote in 1981 in the journal American Speech.

In the North and North-Midland, Phillips wrote, “the words are generally pronounced without a glide” (that is, they sound like TOON, DOOK, and NOOZE). In those Northern regions, she said, pronunciation with the glide (i.e., NYOOZE) is limited to rural New England.

“Only in the South and South-Midland does the [YOO] pronunciation remain in general use,” she wrote, “and even there the older pronunciation with the glide is being gradually replaced.”

In a more detailed follow-up article in 1994, and with fresh data on Southern speech patterns, Phillips confirmed that the YOO pronunciation was indeed fading in the South, especially among younger speakers.

“We are indeed dealing with a sound change in progress,” she wrote. “That is, the younger speakers are further along in the sound change than are the older speakers.”

Another article in American Speech, this one written by Ann Pitts in 1986, also found a decline in what she called “the Southern glided variant” (as in NYOOZE and DYOOK and TYOON).

But Pitts noticed something very odd. While Southerners were gradually dropping the “y,” Northern broadcasters were picking it up.

“The only answer to this puzzle,” she wrote, “is that the old glided variant has acquired a new kind of prestige which is keeping it alive artificially in the broadcasting register.”

Northern announcers, she suggested, may have interpreted the “y” sound “not as a Southern feature, but rather as an elegant variant appropriate to the formal medium of broadcasting.”

The “y” sound in some words, Pitts speculated, may have been kept alive by “snob value,” by “association with the British accent,” or by “elocution instructors teaching elegant speech in the North as well as the South.”

But in some cases the adoption of the “y” glide results in unnatural speech. Pitts reported an anecdote about clueless speakers who unknowingly turned the phrase “noon news” into a mock-elegant monstrosity: NYOON NYOOZE.

She also mentioned some other broadcasting oddities—”y” sounds inserted into words like “capsule,” “consumer,” “suitable,” “assume,” “super,” “revolution,” and others (SYOO-per, re-vol-YOO-shun, and so on).

But to get back to your original point, if the number of Americans who say NYOOZE is increasing, we haven’t seen any evidence of it.

Pronunciation aside, here’s something that may be news to you.

We were once surprised to notice that Anthony Trollope, a favorite Victorian author of ours, used a plural verb with “news” (as in “And now, here are the news”).

Today, the plural noun “news” is normally used with a singular verb. But in fact “news” was used with plural verbs through the 19th century, and it’s still used that way in Indian English.

The word “news,” meaning recent information, dates back to 1417, the OED says. Here are three OED citations (note the plural verbs):

“Th’ amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (Dryden, 1685).

“There are bad news from Palermo” (Shelley, 1820).

“There are never any news” (Thackeray, 1846).

But from about the mid-1500s, “news” was also occasionally used with singular verbs, as in this 1828 citation from Sir Walter Scott: “Was there any news in the country?”

Eventually, the singular usage became more common, and now “news” is routinely accompanied with a singular verb. Among other things, it means an account, a report, a broadcast, or information in general.

Finally, in case you’re wondering about the history of the expression “no news is good news,” we can tell you it’s not new. Variations on the theme have existed since the 1500s.

In a 1574 collection of proverbs translated from Portuguese, it appeared as “Evill newes never commeth too late.” And in a 1616 letter written by King James VI, it was “no newis is bettir then evill newis.”

But perhaps we really owe the expression to the Italians. In 1647, the historian and political writer James Howell had this to say: “I am of the I[t]alians mind that said Nulla nuova, buona nuova, no newes good newes.”

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