Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Hallelujah!

Dictionaries tell us that the interjection/exclamation hallelujah is pronounced ˌhælɪˈluːjə (or -lə-). However, this is a word probably more often sung than spoken, and we all know that in singing strange things happen to pronunciation.

From the point of view of English, hallelujah is a strange word anyway. Apart from foreign proper names, it is the only word in which the spelling <j> corresponds to the pronunciation j (palatal semivowel). It has an alternative form, alleluia, which comes to us via Greek rather than direct from Hebrew and lacks this spelling oddity.

In the choir I belong to we are already gearing up for our Christmas show, and one of the works we will be performing is Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, which is why I am thinking about this word. (The title itself is phonetically interesting, since it normally undergoes so-called stress shift to ˈHallelujah ˈChorus, in accordance with the usual rule.)

One thing that happens in singing is that vowels that would be weak in ordinary speech tend to become strong. So the second syllable of hallelujah is sung with (or an italianate monophthongal e), the final syllable with ɑː (or a).

The other thing that happens is that suprasegmental features (length, stress) have to be modified to fit in with the music. In Handel’s masterpiece we mostly get the usual (ˈ)halleˈlujah, but sometimes the special stressing halˈleluˈjah. In the fragment below, from the score as adapted for male voices only, you can see that at one point, while the tenor 1s and the basses are singing reigneth and the baritones have rapid normally-stressed hallelujahs, the tenor 2s stress the le syllable.It all sounds magnificent. If you’re in or near London, do come and hear us in December.

25 comments:

  1. I pronounce it the singing way in speech sometimes.

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  2. I had the chance to sing this beautiful piece with my choir last May. Being Spanish our mother tongue, we tend to forget the sound of the (h) and just say "aleluia".

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  3. @ Sil: That doesn't sound too bad when you're singing though. It's almost like anything goes. Well, not exactly, but you can certainly get away with pronouncing things differently when you're singing.

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  4. When I read the above post I had main stress in the normal place for Hallelujah, and only secondary stress on Chorus. I think that's probably typical for my pronunciation of that piece.

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  5. Interesting. That same shift happens in Danish for some hymns.

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  6. "Dictionaries tell us that the interjection/exclamation hallelujah is pronounced ˌhælɪˈluːjə (or -lə-)

    Oh. I've always pronounced it /ˌhæl.ə.ˈluːl.jə/.
    (British English speaker).

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  7. spelling corresponds to the pronunciation j (palatal semivowel)

    How comes? I've been wondering for some time.

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  8. After having sung George Rochberg's Hebrew setting of Psalm 150 a few years ago, I can no longer imagine "Hallelujah" pronounced other than with final-syllable stress, which is the logical place for it if you consider the Hebrew original. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to appreciate the Handel for a while :)

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  9. @Robert Gibson:

    My (BrE) grandmother has always pronounced "Hallelujah" with an intrusive /l/ before the final /j/. Always did drive me nuts :)

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  10. @Lipman:

    I don't know. The King James Bible and Wycliffe translations both have "Alleluia" in Revelation 19:1.

    The earliest citations for "Halleluiah" or "Hallelujah" I could find on Google Books are all in Latin works from the early sixteenth century. (Of course, "i" and "j" were not yet differentiated consistently at this time).

    My guess would be that people with some knowledge of Hebrew were more likely to write in Latin than in English, and thus used "i"/"j" to represent the palatal approximant. The question then becomes why this letter was not pronounced as an affricate in English (as it was in "Jesus", "Jerusalem", etc.) Perhaps because it came directly from Latin rather than via French?

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  11. vp,

    Your people with some knowledge of Hebrew who were more likely to write in Latin than in English, and thus used "i"/"j" to represent the palatal approximant, may instead have been using it to represent the iota with diaeresis in the Greek spelling to show that however unetymologically, it was not the palatal approximant. As JW says, and the OED confirms, the form alleluia comes to us via Greek rather than direct from Hebrew. The OED gives the Greek spelling with the diaeresis, and this is presumably why they only give the pronunciation ælɪˈl(j)uːɪə for it, and e.g. Sir John Tavener still scores it with that extra syllable. That would answer the question why this letter avoided being pronounced as an affricate in English (as it was in "Jesus", "Jerusalem", etc.) And the weird pronunciation of Robert Gibson and your grandmother with an intrusive /l/ may have originated in stuttered attempts to fit in the weird lj option indicated by the l(j) in the OED.

    But lo and behold, for hallelujah the OED agrees with the dictionaries that "tell us that the interjection/exclamation hallelujah is pronounced ˌhælɪˈluːjə (or -lə-)", with no weird alternative pronunciations. There has long been a miscellany of spellings of course, but between them they seem to have warded off the change to dʒ.

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  12. In American English, there's another word where "the spelling corresponds to the pronunciation j (palatal semivowel)," namely jaeger. Outside North America, I believe these birds are called "the three smaller skuas".

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  13. Yes, of course the actual question isn't why /y/ is represented by j but why it isn't /dʒ/ anyway, whatever the spelling. Even the name Jah itself, spelled in various ways in older bible translations, is pronounced thus.

    My best guess is it's the influence of ex-Greek alleluia. I'm not sure the intervocalic position has anything to do with it.

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  14. Lipman, said...

    My best guess is it's the influence of ex-Greek alleluia.

    That's exactly what I was saying. I too thought of Jah in all these cases, but the diaeresis is the clincher. That's why the intervocalic position does have nothing to do with it., and why the residual awareness of that syllabicity preserved in the miscellany of spellings has ensured that it isn't /dʒ/ anyway,

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  15. The OED gives the Greek spelling with the diaeresis, and this is presumably why they only give the pronunciation ælɪˈl(j)uːɪə for it, and e.g. Sir John Tavener still scores it with that extra syllable.

    Presumably this is syllabified ælɪˈl(j)uː.ɪ.ə, meaning that "alleluia" has two consecutive hiatuses -- are there any other words with this remarkable property?

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  16. FWIW, the earliest occurrences I could find of both "hallelu{i/j}ah" and "alleluia" in English verse seem to require 4 syllables for each:

    George Wither, early 17th century

    Robert Greene, "A Maidens Dreame", 1590s

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  17. @mallamb:

    I have been thinking about this quite a bit, and I don't think your thesis can be quite correct. All the Western church music I know that sets the word "Alleluia" has it as four syllables. There's an example of Gregorian chant here.

    Orthodox music, on the other hand, tends to set it as five syllables, for example in Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil here. And Tavener, being Orthodox himself, doubtless followed Orthodox usage on this point.

    My hypothesis is as follows:
    * In the Orthodox church, "Alleluia" has always been five syllables.
    * In the Latin/Western church, "Alleluia" has always been four syllables.
    * When the word "Hallelujah" became known in England (and probably elsewhere in Western Europe) it was conformed in pronunciation with the pre-existing "Alleluia", except for the possible addition of the inital /h/.

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  18. I have always regarded* Alleluia as the Catholic spelling and Hallelujah as a Protestant variant. In which case the corresponding pronunciation would serve in Ireland as a reverse shibboleth of the name of the letter H.

    *based on not much evidence

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  19. vp,
    I think your musical research marathon is really getting us somewhere. In the case of the form 'alleluia' I find the idea of the Orthodox five syllables followed by Tavener very convincing, based on the closer association with the Greek spelling with the diaeresis from the Septuagint. These all seem to be pretty unambiguously five-syllable forms. But for Western church music it may not be so much a matter of the number of syllables as of the form those syllables took at various times. You say of the OED IPA transcription:
    Presumably this is syllabified ælɪˈl(j)uː.ɪ.ə, meaning that "alleluia" has two consecutive hiatuses -- are there any other words with this remarkable property?

    But it may be syllabified ælɪˈl(j)uː.ɪə, without the two consecutive hiatuses. OED doesn't use any syllabification marking like JW's, or even make some of the other distinctions we would need to know about: it has ʃɪə for both 'Shiah' and 'sheer', for example. (LPD has ˈʃiː ə and ʃɪə respectively, and if it recognized ʃɪə for ' Shia, Shi’a, Shi‘a, Shiah' it could cover all the possibilities by transcribing it as ˈʃiː‿ə, with italicized length marker and undertie for possible compression.)

    You are clearly still talking about the form 'alleluia' and its relationship with the other forms in h-. And we probably still agree that it's for etymological reasons that the OED has two separate entries, one for this 'alleluia', giving the unique pronunciation ælɪˈl(j)uːɪə for it, still traceable to the Septuagint, and with no alternative spellings except in the citations, and one for the the forms in h- under 'hallelujah, -iah', giving the unique pronunciation ˌhælɪˈluːjə for it, and the alternative spellings in h-: halleluiah, halleluya, halleluia, halaluiah.

    It's the timing of those two etymological routes the word has taken which explains the failure of the -j- to be pronounced dʒ. You say:
    When the word "Hallelujah" became known in England (and probably elsewhere in Western Europe) it was conformed in pronunciation with the pre-existing "Alleluia", except for the possible addition of the inital /h/.

    I wouldn't put it quite like that. I think the h and the j were only ever an etymologizing afterthought inspired by the biblibal scholarship invested in the new translations. I still think the persistence of the i and y spellings is evidence of continuing awareness of the Greek spelling, but it looks as if in addition the pronunciation with [j] or [i] was too well established to be influenced by the etymologizing -j-, even though the equally etymologizing h- seems to have caught on.

    All this is apparent from the alternative spellings that do occur in the OED citations for 'alleluia': alleluia, aleluya (1382 and 1398) and alleluiah, and the ones for 'hallelujah. -iah', which are its first appearances from the Coverdale bible: halleluya (1535) and halleluiah (1557), and a few mercurialia, with 'hallelujah' coming in from 1625.

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  20. I'm delighted to discover that the author of this blog is also, like myself, a choral singer. As a phonetician as well, you must appreciate the unique(?) feature of the pre-IPA phonetic transcription used by the OED, of indicating in a most economical way both the normal speech pronunciation of certain unstressed vowels, and the 'ideal' values that such vowels could take in situations of very careful enunciation and, notably, in singing.

    Now, the OED1 transliteration of Hallelujah is (hælĭlū·yă). That indicates a speech pronunciation /hælɪˈluːjə/ and a singing pronunciation /hæli(ː)ˈluːja(ː)/. However, as you rightly note, most singers give the second syllable a pseudo-Continental /eɪ/ sound; and, in my experience, the first syllable generally becomes /hɑː/, /ha/, or /hʌ/. I must admit that I often pay an inaudible homage to Sir James Murray by singing the vowels he recommended, safe in the knowledge that my /hæ/ and /liː/ will be drowned out by the hundred or so other singers around me!

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  21. I sing in a choir too. I know about those Continental values. Last year we were told to sing 'Jesu' as /'jeɪzu:/ rather than /'ʤi:zju:/.

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  22. @Peter: funny you should say that. There was a question about this only yesterday choralnet.org.

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  23. @Peter Tan:

    In his teenage masterpiece "A Boy Was Born", Benjamin Britten explicitly specifies that "Jesu" be thus pronounced.

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  24. Funny thing about hallelujah is how many people believe it to be a Hebrew word when in fact it's a Latin word.
    When you think about it, that hallelujah song from the Shrek movie is rather silly in saying that king David would've composed anything with 'hallelujah' in it...
    (also, as a french speaking person, I prefer to say Alleluia, even in signing it)

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  25. Hallelujah a Latin word? Where do you get that idea from?

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