missing /j/s

Southern BrE speakers frequently comment upon AmE speakers' lack of the /j/ or 'y' sound in words like Tuesday and tune: BrE /tjun/ versus AmE /tun/ (= toon). The difference is found in many words with a coronal consonant followed by an /u/, including assume, new, duke, sue, due. The two dialects don't usually differ when it comes to the /ju/ sound in other phonetic contexts, as in use, huge and cute.

Since BrE is so /j/-ful, it often strikes me when the /j/ goes missing in some British pronunciations of American names. Twice this week, I heard the American director John Huston's name pronounced by BrE speakers without the /j/: /hustn/. Americans would pronounce his name as /hjustn/ (imagine the 'n' as a syllable--I'm too lazy to go after the phonetic symbols tonight)--and as far as I can find, that's how the Huston family now pronounces it too. (There was a slight discussion of this on the American Dialect Society list in 2003. The name was changed from Houghton by John Huston's father, Walter, but the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary reportedly says that Huston is pronounced with the /j/.) Similarly, BrE speakers often call Houston, Texas /hustn/, but the American pronunciation has a /j/. (We can't take the British too much to task for incorrectly pronouncing Houston Street in New York City, since most non-New-Yorker Americans pronounce it incorrectly too. The first syllable is pronounced like house.)

I encountered another missing /j/ in a production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in Johannesburg some years ago. There I sat, enraptured by an excellent production of an incredible play, believing that the actors had been imported from the US, as their accents were impeccable. But then the Mormon characters started referring to the state of Ootah. (The actors also seemed to be allergic to the the in the AmE phrase in the hospital.) It didn't diminish the strength of the play, but it left no doubt that the actors were not American.

This all could lead to the hypothesis that there are only so many /j/s available to a dialect, and if they use them all up in words like Tuesday, they'll not have them for use elsewhere. (Similar things have been claimed for dialects that don't pronounce the /r/ in dear but find an /r/ to put at the end of idea.) But I think the real story, once again, is that the pronunciation of names is particularly difficult to master.


  1. I've noticed lately that some AmE dialects may be experiencing a bit of /w/-intrusion (along the same lines as the /r/-intrusion in idea). Though I must admit that I haven't actually heard very much. I've mostly noted it typographically; words like 'cool' are being spelled 'kewl'.

    I suspect* that the vowel in 'cool' is moving from the not-so-far-high-or-back /U/ as in 'book' or 'snook', toward the more cardinal /u/ as in 'coup' or 'snooker'. The presence then of the /l/ would motivate the vowel to diphthongise to(wards) /uo/ which sounds close to the intrusion of a /w/.
    I miss phonology (sometimes).

    What was this post about again? Oh right, /j/. Sorry for being so off-track!

    *Mostly from trying to replicate how I assume it sounds; not the best form of fieldwork I admit.

  2. ...or it could just be hypercorrection of names that are perceived as being very American.

    As for Jan(g)ari's comment: there's definitely a lot of movement going on with /u/ but I'm not sure that most/all of it is going the direction you describe. In my (CA) dialect, as in many others, the vowel in 'cool' has been fronting more than anything, to the extent that about 10 years ago teenagers were using a pseudo-phonetic spelling 'kewl' and it was almost homophonous with 'keel.'

  3. Hi Bridget--Hypercorrection is a possibility, I think it'd be easier to see it as hypercorrection toward(s) AmE if these were in phonetic contexts where BrE would expect a /j/ (and expect AmE speakers not to have a /j/). But since they're not after coronals and they seem limited to proper names (I don't hear BrE speakers saying hooge instead of huge when they attempt an AmE accent), I see it more as a 'names are unpredictable' problem.

    As for cool--I wouldn't want to make a generali{s/z}ation about AmE vowels based on a word that is evaluative and slang. People exaggerate or minimi{s/z}e the vowel in cool in all sorts of ways. I associate the kewl spelling with an attempt to recreate Dude-speak (or Surf(er)speak), whereas another way to pronounce it (in order to try to sound nonchalant) is with a very quick schwa-like sound.

  4. I don't hear BrE speakers saying hooge instead of huge when they attempt an AmE accent

    Not unless they are attempting a comedy Brooklyn accent, in the style of Danny DeVito or similar.

  5. It's important to note that in the accents of many British dialects the /j/ or 'y' sound in words like Tuesday and tune are omitted in the same way - particularly those from East Anglia and the East End of London. The same seems true of the Devon/Somerset area.

  6. As Howard points out above, BrE dialects aren't all /j/-ful, including many, if not all, in east Anglia. It is there that we find the vast turkey-producing business of Mr Bernard Matthews who, IMHO, has built his commercial empire through TV-advertising during which he describes his sometimes controversial wares as /'butəfəl/.

    Where did I hear: "Put up your dooks," I wonder? I think dooks are fists and maybe it was a cartoon character issuing that challenge.

    As for IPA syllabic N, is it here? I'd embed it but the comment-facility doesn't allow image-tags. Some web-authorities suggest you can represent a syllabic consonant with a preceding superscripted schwa, but I can't find that in ASCII. BTW, my off-the-wall phonetic system is here.

    Just as London has Euston = /'justn/ railway/train station, so Dublin has Heuston station, but can anyone tell me how you say it?

    Speaking of Euston, I remember the 1968 Carry On Up The Khyber in which Kenneth Williams played Rhandi Lal, the Khasi of Kalabar, who often asked Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, played by Sid James, to convey his felicitations to England's 19th-century queen. Unfortunately, the Khasi kept mixing up his central London railway-stations. "Do remember me," he would say, "to your magnificent Queen Paddington," or "your marvellous Queen Waterloo," which Sir Sidney had to correct to "Victoria".

  7. Mr Bernard Matthews was probably wise to stick to the claim that his products are "bootiful", rather than using the alternative slogan suggesting that they are "Norfolk 'n' good".

  8. Yes...the largest city in Texas does indeed get mispronounced all the time on TV and on the radio over here. It's a common thing -- in our house -- to hear both a female American voice AND a male British voice yelling, simultaneously, "HUGH-ston" when that happens!


  9. "Where did I hear: "Put up your dooks," I wonder? I think dooks are fists and maybe it was a cartoon character issuing that challenge."

    IME, it's usually spelled "dukes", and pronounced in AmE without the /j/. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) confirms that spelling and lists the etymology of that sense as "prob. fr. dukes of York, rhyming slang for fork (hand, fist)".

    With that etymology, I'd expect a British (specifically Cockney) provenance. (Though with /j/ in that dialect.)

    The phrase is fairly common in older American movies and cartoons.

    (Aside: Blogger Beta seems to dislike showing the word verification image when the site is viewed with Firefox 2.0.)

  10. Blogger beta seems to be having all sorts of problems.

    At any rate, what I had said before, but which has disappeared, is that, as ever, when we talk about pronunciation, there will be a lot of variation among regions, social registers and individuals.

    Also, interestingly, while the American Heritage Dictionary frequently gives /j/-ful alternate pronunciations, the OED tends to not offer a /j/-less alternative, although, as has been discussed here, there are /j/-less dialects in the UK.

  11. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. You should hear how our teachers in Russia insist on the BrE variant of pronunciation, but sometimes unconsciously use the AmE or "RE" one.

  12. "alternate pronunciations"; alternative, surely?

  13. Dearieme, you just wait for days when I have a stomach bug, don't you? The 'alternative' meaning of alternate is marked in the OED as US, so it should have had an "AmE" marker there. It's still prescriptively frowned upon by some in AmE, though it's interesting that the American Heritage usage note on the subject is concerned that one doesn't use alternative to mean alternate, rather than vice versa. (I.e. "don't say on alternative Tuesdays", rather than "don't say 'an alternate pronunciation'." Their third definition for alternate, 'Serving or used in place of another' is the sense I've used here, i.e. the one that the OED marks as AmE.

    Red Squirrel, I enjoyed reading about your experiences studying English in Russia. I hope you'll continue to contribute to the comments here.

  14. > With that etymology, I'd expect a British (specifically Cockney) provenance. (Though with /j/ in that dialect.)

    Actually, Doug, Cockney tends not to do /j/ in words like 'duke' - as I suggested above, it's one of the dialects that doesn't.

  15. You did, indeed. Sorry I missed the "East London" thing. My experience with Cockney is, ummm, thin on the ground.


  16. One of your examples surprises me: I have never noticed a British person put a /j/ in "sue".

    The Australian custom is to put a /j/ in most, but not all, words that the British do. One example that sounds odd to me when said in an English accent is "suitcase".

  17. My understanding of dukes is that it's Angloromani in origin, along with dukering 'fist-fighting'.

    From 1634: The Bavarian Crisis by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce:

    "Do they normally duke these things out on the public roads?" Keith asked.

    "There's no duke involved here," Durre said. "What's important jurisdictionally is that these are imperial knights, directly subject to the emperor, with no intervening authority."

    As for "bootiful", Peter Trudgill explains why this spelling doesn't work well for a Norfolk accent: the /ju/ is indeed jodless, but that doesn't make the vowel of beautiful the local representative of GOOSE.

  18. The j-glide is* common in the southeastern US after stops (as in "tune", "dew"), but not after /s/ or /l/. "Dew" and "do" were generally contrasted in southern North Carolina when I was growing up.

    *Or "was", 30+ years ago.

  19. there's also the palatalisation aspect. For better or for worse (and I don't know if it comes from my British (S. UK BrE) influence or my Canadian influence) I tend to pronounce words such as 'Tuesday' as /tʃuzde/. I once nearly got into some trouble with a (culturally Jewish) acquaintance by referring to a local restaurant as the /dʒu/ Drop Inn. Hilarity ensued.

  20. Houston is a town in Scotland and a surname here, both pronounced without a j.

    As with all North American place words carried across from here, we see the spellings and recognise the names.

  21. Paul Danon, Heuston Station in Dublin is pronounced just like Euston in London, but with a(n) H in front of it. It was renamed from Kingsbridge in 1966 in honour of Seán Heuston, an Irish rebel who took part in the Easter Rising of 1966.

  22. BrE "Houston" without a /j/ is probably a spelling pronunciation. No other word spelled with "ou" has the /j/ sound, except AmE "coupon" (which is invariably yod-less inBrE).

  23. vp

    BrE "Houston" without a /j/ is probably a spelling pronunciation.

    Spelling may confirm the pronunciation, but surely the motivation is the existence of the town of Houston here in Scotland, and of the surname Houston — both with the expected pronunciation

  24. @David Crosbie:

    BrE "Houston" without a /j/ is probably a spelling pronunciation

    Spelling may confirm the pronunciation, but surely the motivation is the existence of the town of Houston here in Scotland, and of the surname Houston — both with the expected pronunciation

    I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of Britons have ever heard of the Scottish Houston (a village with a population of 6,000, according to Wikipedia).

    As for the surname Houston, its pronunciation is all over the map. By far the most well-known bearer of the surname is the singer Whitney Houston, whose name is pronounced as in the Texas city.

  25. vp

    By far the most well-known bearer of the surname is the singer Whitney Houston, whose name is pronounced as in the Texas city.

    In other words, we Brits pronounce her name the way we pronounce the Texan city. OK, I concede that some Brits might get Whitney's name 'right' but not the city. For my generation, by far the most well-known bearer of that surname is Renée Houston, whose name is pronounced as in the Sottish town.

    In any individual speaker's life, one pronunciation is heard early in life; the other is heard either later or not at all. Spelling need not enter into it.

  26. In BrE we have lost /j/s in words that had them when I was a child (1950s) such as suit, lieu and - yes outerhoard - sue. A lost one explains the gag in Family Guy when Peter pronounces 'do my duty' as do my doody', and sniggers. A few days ago, having commented on a website lexicon page that offers AmE versions of BrE words, I received a reply which included 'undo' for 'undue', an error I have seen before that results from losing the /j/. I wonder when I will read about a bachelor keeping a fair young maid from the foggy foggy do.

  27. Sorry for the very late reply. I’ m still working my way through old posts. Many years ago, one of the Scottish newspapers did a carton strip featuring the comedian Billy Connelly. The running joke was that words were spelt as they would be pronounced in the Scots dialect. Duke of Edinburgh became chookie embra.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)