English vs. Dialect, Pseudo-Hebrew Pronunciations
  • Are most educated Catholic choirmasters in agreement that English diction should not be influenced by Hebrew, Latin, or other foreign pronunciations? I'm sure there are many other examples, but some of these drive me nuts!

    Very common in sacred music:
    Israel = /ˈɪzreɪel/ (IZ-ray-el) - not IZ-rye-el, IZ-rah-el, or ISS-ray-el!
    Jesu = /ˈdʒizju/ (JEE-zyoo) - not YAY-zoo, YEH-zoo (Latin), JEE-zoo, JEE-soo, or JEE-syoo!
    Sabaoth = /ˈsæbeɪɒθ/ (SAB-ay-oath) - not SAH-bye-oath, SAH-bye-oat, SAH-bah-oath, or SAH-bah-oat (Latin)!

    I've noticed that many otherwise well-trained choirs diphthongize Sabaoth in Latin as well (SAH-bye-oat). I guess it's one of those bad habits that dies hard, like pronouncing the h of hosanna or hodie.

    Less common:
    Baal = /beɪl/ (BAYL) - not ball! Occurs in Mendelssohn's Elijah.
    Babel = /ˈbeɪbəl/ (BAY-bul) - not babble! Occurs in "It Came upon the Midnight Clear."
    chamois = /ˈʃæmɪ/ (SHAM-ee) - not SHAM-wah! Occurs in Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb.
    Ephraim = /ˈifreɪɪm/ (EE-fray-im) or /ˈifrəm/ (EE-frum) - not EF-rah-eem (Latin), EF-rye-eem, EE-frah-eem, or EE-fry-eem! Occurs in several psalms.
    neither = /ˈnaɪðə/ (NIGH-thuh) - not NEE-thuh! (likewise for either). Occurs in Ireland's "Greater Love Hath No Man."
    new = /nju/ (NYOO) - not NOO! (likewise for the words dew and news)
    oil = /ɔɪl/ (OIL) - not OY-uhl!

    A couple I feel less strongly about:
    Adonai = /ˌædɒˈnaɪ/ (ad-oh-NIGH) or, as three four syllables /ˌædɒˈneɪaɪ/ (ad-oh-NAY-eye). Occurs in the "O" antiphons and some versions of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."
    Isaiah = /aɪˈzaɪə/ (eye-ZIGH-uh). Occurs in "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."

    I can live with "ah-doh-NAH-ee" (Latin) and "eye-ZAY-uh." The latter is common enough as a given name not to be considered dialect in American English. Thoughts?
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  • Sorry. Maybe I'm just used to singing in Latin, but I'll take Yeh-soo, Sah-bah-oat, etc. any day over the others.
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  • YEH-soo is fine... if one is singing in Latin. If one is singing English, it's JEE-soo, the Anglo-Saxon vocative. Singing YAY-soo (or -zoo) in an English context is ill-informed.
    Thanked by 2Salieri dboothe
  • I know it's incorrect, but I still prefer it. It sounds better to me. Ah well.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,462
    "Are most educated Catholic choirmasters in agreement that English diction should not be influenced by Hebrew, Latin, or other foreign pronunciations?"

    I don't know, but I am inclined to doubt it. A lot of choirmasters might choose a pronunciation that offers an optimized fulcrum point with these two poles: clarity of diction, and lowest risk of pitch distortion. And that question answered in the context of specific amateur singers in a specific acoustical space.

    Let the people say, Amen. Pronounced whichever way you want.

  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,281
    I specifically disagree with several of your CORRECT PRONUNCIATIONS, but I don't want to argue about them.

    What I DO want to argue about is the notion that words in English have some FIXED and INHERENT correct pronunciation that is unwavering over time or geography. This is simply not the case, and no amount of school-marmy fussbudgetry will make it so.

    One MIGHT be able to make the case that in a historical performance setting, one should pronounce the words the way they would have been pronounced when the piece was composed. But even that, I think, is a bit of a stretch: Should we Anglicize the Latin pronunciation of Byrd's Masses? Should Coverdale be prayed according to pirate-sounding Original Pronunciation?
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,188
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  • For Latin, if one follows the Italian pronunciation (as we should in English-speaking countries), s between two vowels is softened and pronounced like z. Unlike in English, it's not softened after a consonant, even at the end of a word, therefore words such as fons and mors have a hard s sound.

    Regarding school-marmy fussbudgetry: I know one Episcopalian who insists on Israel in English with a hard s "because it's spelled that way." Why he doesn't pronounce is or as that way for consistency is beyond me.
  • English diction has already been influenced by all of those, and many more, factors. It's a done deal.

    Rather than worrying about perceived 'standard English' pronunciations, I would be far more inclined to worry about musicality.

    I do think that some people exhibit an apparent tendency to pronounce words in a 'ferruhn' way because they believe it makes them sound sophisticated, and I'd certainly wish to avoid that form of silliness as well.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,388
    Why he doesn't pronounce is or as that way for consistency is beyond me.


    Maybe consistency is an Episcopalian thing. I haven't found much of it in Catholic choir lofts. When I have used historical pronunciations in choral pieces, they have sometimes sounded stilted and silly. Let's not even get started on scripture readers. That's a whole other set of disasters. I have heard everything from coveting my neighbors Aiss to Anus the high priest.
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  • This may be one of those issues in which everybody is right... and nobody is wrong.
    The two constants in making these judgments may be scholarship and context, either of which may trump the other depending on the, um, context.
  • Adam Wood:
    One MIGHT be able to make the case that in a historical performance setting, one should pronounce the words the way they would have been pronounced when the piece was composed. But even that, I think, is a bit of a stretch: Should we Anglicize the Latin pronunciation of Byrd's Masses? Should Coverdale be prayed according to pirate-sounding Original Pronunciation?

    I believe the Italian pronunciation is now the only legitimate one for liturgical Latin in English-speaking countries. For historically-informed concert performances, why not use the English pronunciation? There are wonderful recordings by various choirs using this style of Latin, including Gregorian chant, but I would consider it inappropriate for the liturgy.

    The so-called English cathedral choral tradition is a living thing, not just an historical artifact. The pronunciations I suggested above are based on the standard practice of English cathedral and college choirs. At my last organist post, I had a particularly obnoxious chorister, who suggested to the choirmaster that he needed to go to the temple to learn how to pronounce Israel. The work in question was by Stanford. What can the synagogue teach us about the English choral tradition? American choral directors have varying opinions about diction, but there is definitely a correct way to pronounce certain words in this repertory, as recordings unanimously attest. I imagine the "pirate" pronunciation was once used in church singing but died out once it ceased to be used in educated speech. I'm more concerned about correct performance practice in the context of the living English choral tradition rather than historical reconstructions, interesting though they be.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,281
    The so-called English cathedral choral tradition is a living thing, not just an historical artifact.


    So is English, as she is spoke by Americans in church.

    I'm pretty sure I would giggle if I heard Americans singing SAB-ay-oth, and NOO is perfectly reasonable for choral pronunciation.
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 636
    Methinks one makes much ado about nothing
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  • Liam
    Posts: 3,462
    https://answersingenesis.org/tower-of-babel/babel-how-to-pronounce-it/

    eye-ZIGH-uh in American choirs sounds twee. Just does. (I prefer it myself, but wouldn't force it on other Americans. The English choral tradition is lovely, but it's not dispositive for American choirs, let alone Roman choirs.)
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,224
    Although American pronunciations can sound quite ugly (and so perhaps they are to be avoided) the pronunciation of Latin in the more Roman way is not customary elsewhere. Germans pronounce “c” and “g” as soft and hard respectively, whereas most ecclesiastical guides reverse those, and no one would dare correct them! It is not a big deal if one wishes to adjust the Latin as needed...

  • The correct pronunciation is that taught by your choirmaster. That's all. (That does not imply that all choirmasters are equal, or that some of them shouldn't be advised by their better peers.) I nearly always teach English choral diction because I consider it to be the most beautiful and euphonious, just as I've, since about the fifth grade, used British spelling - because I like it and think that Merriam Webster was an incredibly presumptuous and mean spoil-sport. I am not disturbed that others have their own preferences. Some American diction is admirable and artful - some isn't (and that goes for some English English.)
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,281
    The correct pronunciation is that taught by your choirmaster.


    Hear here!
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  • Yay-soo is incorrect. Mispronouncing it that way in English church music doesn’t come from Latin (I mean, it might in some contexts I guess), but rather that it’s most well known use, “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,” it is often conflated with the original German Text which is he basis for the English, so people sing yay-soo because they’re used to hearing the German sung to that tune.

    The j glide before “u” isn’t a matter of dialect anymore so much as it is a matter of accepted standards of diction/clarity, as crystallized in the “Daniel Sitteth” mnemonic from Madeleine Marshall.

    The pronunciation of Latin and Hebrew words when used in English (sabaoth for example is, as far as I know, only used in the original Anglican translation settings, not catholic ones) is based on the pronunciation of Latin in England, called Oxford Latin, that came about by tagging along with English pronunciation development and was used in Britain, even by catholic priests, even trained abroad, into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. This pronunciation can still be hear from some Brits, and is sometimes used when singing Byrd or Tallis (quam closer to rhyming with swam), and often even in English when singing Alleluia (sounding like Alice rather than more like all). If you have ever heard a recording or seen a video of a royal occasion when Parry’s I Was Glad was sung, the “vivat regina” is sung according to ango-Latin. Words like “sinus”, “femur”, “decree nisi”, “piloric”, and “angina” are direct loans from Latin and we pronounce them according to the Anglo/oxford Latin.
    Using Anglo-Latin for Latin texts is probably unwise and affected, even if singing Byrd or Tallis, but the words “Israel”, “Babel”, “Babel-sounds”, “magi”, “swaddling”, “tabret”, “bashan” (rhymes with nation), “sabaoth” (the last syllable also usually sounds more like the vowel in froth), etc., should always be pronounced with the English vowels. ESPECIALLY if you are singing Anglican rep, like a Te Deum, it matters absolutely zilch what anyone’s opinion about the pronunciations is, sa-bah-ott, etc. are wrong. Find out how King’s College songs it and that’s your answer. Izryel is always wrong, period—it isn’t “the Latin pronunciation”. That would be is-rah-el. I have a feeling that sabaoth is just a matter of panic, but isryel is probably an unfortunate consequence of stupid pop singers and their Christmas albums. Mispronunciation if less common words is the result, probably, of wanting to sound exotic/“authentic” and/or a lack of homework. I always used to call dibs on the relevant portion of psalm 22 at solemn Good Friday to ensure that no one would be singing “bulls of Be’Shawn”.

    Bonus: Zion should not sound like an alien planet, but rather should usually rhyme more with a non-rhotic r/British pronunciation of “iron.” This goes for reading lessons as well. We don’t want any Hydrogen Zions.
  • Well!
    I should say that settles it!!!
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    I suppose that Oxford Latin, which can yet be heard in most university and public school contexts, is all right for the (British) academic world - if they must. It is, really, a XXIst century hold-over from the age when Latin was pronounced everywhere as one's 'native' language was pronounced, whether that native language was French, Languedoc, Hungarian, Flemish, or German, and on and on. I can't say how they pronounce Latin these days in Hungary, or any where else. The Church, though, has opted for the well known Italianate Latin, which, really, has no more claim to being authentic Latin than would a Polish tincture. But, the Church seems to have an existential identity with Rome, with the result that its Latin should be pronounced as the Romans pronounce it. (You know, 'when in Rome do as the Romans do', and so forth.)

    As JMS points out, the regal acclamations within Parry's famed anthem are always performed with the obligatory Oxford Latin tongue. I've not noticed, though, that any of the well-known collegiate or cathedral choirs routinely apply the Oxford accent to their performances of Tudor and other historic repertory. If they did, it would sound quite eccentric to most of us - even though Byrd would have sung his Latin exactly as English was pronounced in his day, more akin to the Oxonian tongue than not - as would everyone else everywhere else have done with his own tongue. Much as some would love to deny it, Italianate Latin is a convention hardly more than an hundred years old.

    And, a reminder about the 'Jesu' versus Jesu question. If the text is English it is 'Jeezoo'. If the text is Latin, it is 'Yayzoo'. 'Jesu' does happen to be the Anglo-Saxon vocative case, and, therefore, in English contexts is properly pronounced 'Jeezoo'.

    (Oh! And it's 'Is-ray-el', not 'Is-rah-el', for reason: that's the way it is pronounced by English choirs, which are universally definitive for when singing in English.)
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,594
    Djeez-you, if you please ;-)
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  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 260
    'the way it is pronounced by English choirs, which are universally definitive for when singing in English'
    Try telling that to the Scots..................
  • In South Africa we say nee-thuR, so we already have a problem early in the game. Trying to keep pronunciation uniform in English is a tough one, since there are so many dialects. I would keep a uniform in the liturgical languages such as Latin and Greek as par as possible. After that I would do a bit of research on the use of English at the time of the composition and match up as best as possible.
  • Jms1994
    Posts: 3
    @Viola the next time millions of people south of Gretna Green bother to tune in to a Scottish L&C you let me know.
    Thanked by 1Viola
  • In regard to the word Jesu, correct pronunciation partly depends on whether this word is being used in Latin or English or (I suppose) Spanish.


    Imagine otherwise intelligent people say Hey-Zoo (using deformed Spanish) when trying to sing Jesu Dulcis Memoria and/or Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring.

    The first (In my opinion) should be pronounced "Yay-zoo", and the second "Jee-zyou".