According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting. Both are bad.
The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).
The other is the choo-choo of poor diction. This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.
A Sick Pleasure
A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler. I was a “diction monitor” of sorts. At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying. I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves. My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.
Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day. I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform — each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal. Some missed their final T’s, there were some dropped H’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.
But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you. The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.” And examples of these littered my notes every evening.
Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid Theatre Tank Engine to be avoided — the choo-choo.
Prolonged Linguistic Explanation Inbound
But it’s hard to blame the actors. That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.
They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos. And they occur on both sides of the pond. To illustrate:
“Would_you come here for a minute?”
“Don’t_you see it?“
The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively. However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant; it is just a clipped long /e/ vowel. (To demonstrate: say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you. /Y/ and long /e/ are produced in the mouth precisely the same way; the only difference is that the latter is held longer.) When used this way, /y/ has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).
To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of gymnastics. When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a valley through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”
In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit. Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies. We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day. Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants. Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.
The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you/ya” and “don’t you/ya.”
“Wooja come here for a minute?”
“Doncha see it?“
Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.
But wait — it gets crazier. This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy]. The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, /sh/ and /zh/. We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard. Some examples:
- pressure, assure, sure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
- words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” — my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule
- the Z and Y used to be unassimilated (i.e., distinct) in words like measure and vision (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but have merged into /zh/
Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOHL-jer” and “NAY-cher.” Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOHL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”
The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.” These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”
So, to recap:
/t/ + /y/ ⇒ /ch/, as in statue
/d/ + /y/ ⇒ /j/, as in soldier
/s/ + /y/ ⇒ /sh/, as in pressure
/z/ + /y/ ⇒ /zh/, as in vision
This phonological shift is called yod-coalescence. When we palatalise, or bring to the palate, any one of these clusters, the two individual sounds are said to be “coalescing,” yielding a new, single sound. Yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and represents the same sound denoted by the English Y. Not related to the little, green Jedi master from Star Wars.
Yod-coalescence is responsible for peculiar word pronunciations in dialects that retain the “liquid U” after T and D. Liquid U is in words like cube and fume — you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/ — not “coob” and “foom.” In chiefly British and Australian dialects, this brief /y/ sound still prevails in “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke. But, as we observed earlier, the palatalisation of the [ty] and [dy] clusters gives us /ch/ and /j/. So, while an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his. While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Aussies might engage in a sword “jewel.” An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”
This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”
And why Sean Connery does not assume things — he “a-shooms” them.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.
You get the point.
But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?
Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.” It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.” Note the [dy] cluster. Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language. The Italians say giorno “JOR-noh,” not “DYOR-noh.” And the French say jour (“zhoor”).
A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.” Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant. In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).
Got All That?
Lesson over. The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English. And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.
I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so. I’ve seen several different actors hit with a wrecking ball every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously. Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying instead of the acting behind them. And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.
Conversely, the Railed Passenger Vehicle of the Playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance. Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable. A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.
All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the Thespian Multi-Carriage Machine of Transportation. A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction. Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful. And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.
Verdict? Let your own discretion be your tutor. Or “chootor.”