Wednesday 4 March 2009

O come, O come

It’s the wrong time of year to be asking this, but have you noticed how some people pronounce Israel as ˈɪzraɪel when singing? The hymn that I notice it in is the the Advent hymn
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel!

with its refrain
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

In LPD I said that Israel, in speech normally ˈɪzreɪl or ˈɪzriəl, is “in singing usually ˈɪzreɪel”.
But on reflection I certainly ought to have mentioned this further possibility with -aɪ-.

Listen, for example, to the Irish singer Enya (using slightly different wording from the usual Anglican one):

Where on earth could this treatment of the second vowel have come from? It’s not straightforwardly based on the spelling; there are all sorts of vowel sounds that correspond to the spelling a, but is not one of them.

On reflection I think that we have a tendency (perhaps ‘rule’ would be to put it too strongly) to change ɑː to before a following front vowel (a position from which it is usually shielded by a linking or intrusive r). It’s a kind of anticipatory articulation.
We see this in the word naïve. On the basis of the French it ought to be nɑːˈiːv. In practice people mostly say naɪˈiːv.
If we assume a starting point ˈɪzrɑːel, based on the spelling or the Latin or Hebrew pronunciation (real or imagined), then my proposed near-rule would make it ˈɪzraɪel. QED.
(Or is Enya actually singing her version of ˈɪzrɑːel?)

Table (second attempt, successful)
This is column one. This is column two.
line 1line 1
line two line two
laɪn θriː laɪn θriː


  1. I initially had trouble seeing the problem, because I keep taking ɪ to be ː.

    The Danish pronunciation is /israːl/. You have to speak carefully to get the e as well.

  2. Many choirs sing the word Israel in "O come, o come Emmanuel" as ˈɪzraɪel. The (Anglican) choir I used to sing with decided that this was a bit pretentious and switched to ˈɪzreɪel. Because of the way the word's split over the notes, it would of course sound dire if you sang it as ˈɪzreɪl.

    Oh, and thanks for exposing me to that gorgeous version by Enya.

  3. I hear Enya singing [ˈɪzrɑːel] in that clip. I am not hearing the [aɪ] diphthong, try as I might; if it's there, then the second element is really weak as to be inaudible. I would imagine this is just singing pronunciation based on Latin vowels, especially since this is a translation of a Latin hymn.

  4. Wonderful clip by Enya!

    I have to take earsides with Jongseong on this one: i can't hear the diphtong either, to me it seems she's singing singing [ˈɪzrɑːel].

    As far as the theory of using Latin vowels: it's tempting , but it can't be right in the case of Enya: she's singing the 'u' in Emmanuel as [y] rather than [u], making it closer to French than to Latin.

  5. I hear Enya singing [ˈɪzrɑːjel] in the first occurrence, which could easily be heard as ['ɪzraɪel]. Th second occurrence seems pretty plainly [ˈɪzrɑːel], and likewise the Latin instances.

    In that hymn, I myself make it [ˈɪzrɑːel] with no trace of jod in both Latin and English, though ['ɪzriəl] is my normal spoken pronunciation. ([ˈɪzreɪl] sounds grotesque to me, an obvious spelling pronunciation.)

    I notice some other oddities in Enya's Latin: [pro:ti:, sɑ:lvi:] for pro te, salve, suggesting traditional pronunciation, but [gaude], not [gaudi] or [gOdi].

    As for Emmanuel in her English, I hear it as [jy] rather than [y], which is probably just a too-radical extreme fronting of the expected /ju/. We are dealing with a native speaker of Irish here, so it's not surprising if her English is a bit unusual.

  6. I am commenting on this rather belatedly (almost three months after the appearance of the post), but I just discovered it, and as a classical singer, I can't help wanting to comment on it.

    First, setting aside the question of the choice between ['aɪe] and ['ɑ:e], I can tell you that the habit of pronouncing the second syllable of "Israel" (in English) with some sort of "ah," be it [a] or [ɑ], is very common, at least in the United States. The habit irritates me, as nobody uses such a vowel for "a" in other names, such as "Abraham" or "Jacob," say (at least, I have not yet been subjected to ['ɑbrəhæm] or ['dʒɑkəb]). To switch from English vowels to an approximation of Hebrew or Latin vowels for a name that has been assimilated to English orthoepy for centuries is to indulge the spirit of pedantry without actually achieving the correctness that pedantry aims at. However, it may not be false pedantry alone that generates the use of such a vowel in the name "Israel": in most contexts and for most voices, it is much easier to achieve a pleasing tone on a vowel in the neighborhood of [ɑ] or [a] than on [e]. (More on this below.)

    Second, about the occurrence of the diphthong [aɪ], I have noticed that where the name "Michael" occurs in a Latin text (e.g., in the requiem mass), where it should be pronounced ['mikaɛl], English-speaking singers will almost invariably mispronounce it in a fashion that could be represented as ['mikaɪɛl], though I think ['mikajɛl] or ['mikɑjɛl] represents it more accurately (more on this below, too). So the intrusion of a glide is not peculiar to the pronunciation of the word "Israel." (I notice, by the way, that Mr. Wells and all the commenters use [e] to represent the vowel of "el," but, whatever the reasons for doing so in the transcription of English, no classically trained singer would accept it for the transcription of Latin. For us, [e] represents the vowel of German "Weh," French "té," or Italian "credo" (first syllable), as against the [ɛ] of German "Wett," French "nette," or Italian "bene" (first syllable); and ecclesiastical Latin, at least in the Italian tradition that is followed in English-speaking countries, is sung always with the e's open, not closed.)

    Third, ['mikajɛl] or ['mikɑjɛl] seems to me more accurately to represent the articulatory act and the sound, while ['mikaɪɛl] presumably reflects the phonological structure -- assuming that one is using [aɪ] as a digraph to represent a unitary phoneme. In other words, there is no audible [ɪ] element, but ['mikɑjɛl] is a realization of /'mikaɪɛl/. I would apply the same analysis to "Israel."

    Finally, I would add that the phonetic analysis of sung vowels is a very different business from the phonetic analysis of spoken vowels. To apply to a singer's performance the rules that one has developed for transcribing speech runs the risk of imposing distinctions where they do not apply. Obviously, distinctions of vowel length become inapplicable, since duration is dictated by note values. But also, the more skilled the singer, the more the shaping of the vocal tract for the vowels reflects the needs of tuning rather than speech habits, especially at higher pitch, where many distinctions among spoken vowel qualities become simply inapplicable. Specifically, the distinction between [a] and [ɑ] rarely has application to sung pronunciation. Some singers may try to preserve the distinction in French (e.g., between "pas" [pɑ] and "fois" [fwa]), but it is not likely to be audible unless it is exaggerated.

  7. My thought is that people originally began singing it as Isra-el... which, when sung, unless you hold out a and break to an e will always aound like ai anyway... so when people hear it sung isra-el, they hear israi-el and sing it that way... making the ai even more pronounced.

    Just my two cents. :o)

  8. From my experience as an English choral singer, it is considered poor diction to insert a [j] before the last syllable. Singing a diphthong [aɪ] is somewhat discouraged.

    Unfortunately, not enough choral directors have a knowledge of IPA sound enough to commit what they want to phonetic symbols, but my observation is that the best pronunciation is /'ɪz.ræ.ɛl/. I find that /'ɪz.ra.ɛl/ sounds a bit funny.


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