Thursday, October 21, 2010


I dislike it when people pronounce coupon as CYOO-pon (mouse over for the IPA [1]) instead of COO-pon. Once, when I was complaining about this unfortunate phenomenon, my sister, Camille informed me that historically the long u was pronounced with a y before it. I've since investigated her claim and learned more about it.[2]

She's mostly right. That unwritten-but-pronounced y is called a yod by linguists. And it used to exist in a majority of cases in English. But not all. In a few cases it was used to distinguish between similar words. For example, choose was pronounced CHOOZE, while chews was pronounced CHYOOZE; do was pronounced DOO, while dew was pronounced DYOO.[3]

Many English dialects, especially General American, are going through a process termed yod dropping. It is from this that my pickiness about the pronunciation of coupon arises. Some cases of yod dropping come about because the yod is in a position within a word that just makes it hard to pronounce, so we've eliminated it. This includes words like juice, lute, rude, suit, and blue.[4]

There is another process, yod coalescence, where we combine yod with the preceding consonant. Originally the words educate, measure, and nature were pronounced ED-you-cate, MEZ-yure, and NATE-yure. Now we pronounce them as EJJ-you-cate, MEH-zhure, and NAY-chure.

In other cases we've kept the yod: Matthew, beautiful, feud, mute, failure, and cue, to name a few. Others are retained in Received Pronunciation (upscale British English) but lost in General American, such as new, student, and tune. And there are some words, like soup and moon, which never had the yod. This variability in pronunciation, coupled with a lack of corresponding spelling, is often confusing for foreigners trying to learn English.

Recently this was brought again to my attention when, in a ward council meeting, my bishop (who teaches Shakespeare in the English Department at BYU), pronounced the word prelude as PRELL-yood.

I mentioned this to Leann. In the past we've bantered (good-naturedly, of course) about the pronunciation of certain words. I pronounce the word cumin as CUMM-in, while she pronounces it CYOO-min; I pronounce the word culinary as CYOO-li-NARE-ee, while she pronounces it CULL-in-AIR-ee. Additionally, it bugs her that I pronounce the word curlew (a type of shorebird) as CURL-you instead of CURR-loo.

But this time she playfully disavowed ever using the yod in her speech. I insisted that she did, citing the cases mentioned in the previous paragraph. Still she denied that the yod was in any way a part of her pronunciation. Finally I prevailed upon her by pointing out that she'd rather be a CYOO-tee than a COO-tee![5]

[1] I've included IPA for my linguist friends. To learn more about the International Phonetic Alphabet, see

[2] Much of the information I present here can be found at, the sections on Yod Dropping and Yod Coalescence.

[3] You would think this would explain the weird spelling of lieutenant, but those crazy Brits don't pronounce it LEE-oo-TEN-ant, they pronounce it LEFF-ten-ant!

[4] It can be done, though. They end up as diphthongs, sounding more or less like JEE-oose, LEE-oot, REE-oode, SEE-oot, and BLEE-oo. If that doesn't make sense, imagine it with a British accent.

[5] And she'd rather have BYOO-tee than BOO-tee!