Q: Is the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE strictly a New York thing?
A: The usual pronunciation of “huge” is HYOOGE, according to most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked. The “hy” sound at the beginning is a consonant cluster that combines the sounds produced by the letters “h” and “y.”
In the pronunciation you’re asking about, the “hy” sound at the beginning of “huge” is reduced to a “y” sound, resulting in the variant YOOGE.
Several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), accept the YOOGE pronunciation as an equal variant alongside HYOOGE.
However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says YOOGE occurs primarily in New York City and Long Island, NY, though it’s also heard in some other parts of the East Coast.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists generally use in referring to these sounds, the “hy” cluster is written as /hj/ and the “y” sound as /j/.
Phoneticians, linguists that specialize in the sounds of speech, would say that the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the consonant cluster /hj/ is replaced by the phoneme /j/ when someone pronounces “huge” as YOOGE (judʒ in the IPA alphabet).
This process is similar to what linguists refer to as glide cluster reduction, in which the “wh” cluster (originally spelled “hw”) is reduced to “w” in words like “which,” “whether,” and “where.” We wrote about such “wh” words in our recent post about “h”-dropping.
To keep things as simple as possible here, we’ll use “hy” and “y” for the /hj/ and /j/ sounds, except when we quote linguists or lexicographers using the IPA alphabet.
The earliest evidence in DARE for the YOOGE pronunciation is from the early 1940s, but we suspect that the pronunciation is much older, perhaps dating back to the 1700s, and may have been more widespread.
The dictionary’s first citation for YOOGE is from a 1942 issue of the journal American Speech: “NYC, Long Island, Omission of initial [h] before [ju] … huge … This is a somewhat greater loss of [h] than in upstate speech.”
However, DARE has a much earlier example indicating that the word “humor” (now usually pronounced HYOO-mur) was pronounced YOO-mur in American English in the late 18th century.
In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), Noah Webster criticizes the pronunciation of “human, and about twenty other words beginning with h, as tho they were spelt yuman. This is a gross error.”
Webster doesn’t list the 20 other words, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they included “huge.”
Interestingly, Webster adds that the word “humor” should begin with a “y” sound: “The only word that begins with this sound, is humor, with its derivatives.” In other words, he considered the YOO-mur pronunciation of “humor” to be standard English.
In a footnote, Webster singles out for criticism the Scottish lexicographer William Perry, author of The Royal Standard English Dictionary (1775), which says “human” should be “pron. as if began with a y.”
“I am surprized that his pronunciation has found so many advocates in this country, as there is none more erroneous,” Webster says.
It’s apparent from Webster’s remarks that the “hy” pronunciation of “humor” and some similar words was unsettled in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because of the difficulty some people had in pronouncing the cluster.
In fact, several 18th-century British language authorities agreed with Webster that “humor“ (“humour” in the British spelling) should be pronounced YOO-mur.
In An Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language (1766), for example, James Buchanan endorses the YOO-mur pronunciation, as does John Walker in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).
Several readers of our blog have asked if the pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both native New Yorkers) is similar to the “h”-dropping in cockney, the working-class speech of England.
We don’t think so. In cockney, the “h” sound disappears and is not replaced by anything (as in “house” reduced to OUSE). In the New Yorkish pronunciation of “huge,” the consonant cluster “hy” is replaced by a “y” sound.
If the “h” in “huge” were a normal consonant, the word would be pronounced HOOGE, and dropping the “h” would result in the pronunciation OOGE. That’s not what is happening here.
Interestingly, people speaking the Norfolk dialect in England do change the “hy” sound in “huge” to “h,” resulting in the pronunciation HOOGE. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as yod-dropping, from the name of the Hebrew version of the letter “y.”
In fact, yod-dropping is heard on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s more common in the US and helps differentiate standard American pronunciation from Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent.
Most Americans, for example, usually pronounce “tune” and “news” as TOON and NOOZ, while someone speaking RP pronounces them TYOON and NYOOZ. (In parts of the American South, people also say TYOON and NYOOZ, as we’ve written on the blog.)
We could go on—and on and on. There’s much to be said about yod-dropping, an ongoing process that the linguist John C. Wells dates from the early 18th century, but we’ll leave that for another day.