How authentically should your choir pronounce foreign text?

Have you ever listened to a recording of a choir singing in your language when it is clearly not their own language? Have you noticed, even cringed, when simple words were mispronounced? I certainly have, and it got me thinking about whether it’s actually that important to faithfully pronounce text in a language that isn’t your own.

I’ve always enjoyed singing in other languages. I’d go as far as to say that English is not my favourite language for singing. I’d probably put German at the top, followed by Latin, then Italian. I don’t speak any of those languages, other than a bit of holiday vocab here and there, so when I want to sing something in a foreign language, I have to study.

The same goes for my choir. The pronunciation and enunciation of the text of our repertoire is always an important part of the rehearsal process. But how important is it that we pronounce foreign text ‘autentically’? And who is the arbiter of that authenticity?

Whose pronunciation should you use?

We all know that no language is ‘fixed’. They evolve over generations and across countries and continents. There are hundreds of English dialects in the UK alone, and probably tens of thousands across the English-speaking world. So if I were a non-English speaker trying to sing in English, which dialect should I use? Is there a ‘correct’ one? If I sing the word ‘grass’, should the vowel be as in ‘cash’ or as in ‘farce’?

I’m sure that if you asked musical scholars about the issue, you’d get dozens of different opinions. In other words, pronunciation is inherently subjective and based on a person’s experience. So there can’t be a ‘correct’ pronunciation of anything.

Who cares?

The older I get, the less pedantic I am about language. I still wince a bit when people say ‘less’ when they mean ‘fewer’, but I’ve had to accept the fact that the English I was taught as ‘correct’ at school simply isn’t. And there are all sorts of things that bother other people that have never bothered me (to boldly split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions is something I’m very comfortable with).

It’s the same with singing. If someone listens to our choir singing in a language that isn’t their own, and hears what they consider to be a mispronunciation, does it matter? Surely the answer is no. No individual is the arbiter of how we pronounce the text we sing.

Sung language is different from spoken language

Many languages contain sounds and rhythms that differ between singing and speaking. In sung French, there’s often an added ‘uh’ sound on the ends of words to make them scan. In Italian, it’s common to find several syllables squashed onto a single note. When I sing Handel in English, I roll the ‘Rs’ like crazy which, you won’t be surprised to learn, I don’t do when I’m speaking on the phone.

Even a linguistic purist would have to concede that it isn’t possible, or desirable, to sing a language exactly as we would speak it.

Meaning is more important than pronunciation

When I’m working on a new piece with my choir, one of the first things we look at is the text and its meaning. The point of singing is to convey the emotion of the music to an audience, and one way to do that it through the text.

A choir can be drilled in perfect pronunciation and sing every syllable exactly as they’re taught, but if there’s no emotion in the singing, it won’t be a satisfying performance. It’s so much more important to convey the meaning of the music than to get any individual component of it ‘right’.

In the end, I think the best approach is to get some help with pronouncing languages with which you’re not familiar (either by listening to recordings or working with a vocal coach, depending on your budget), do your best, but ultimately focus on the emotion of the music.

Comments on How authentically should your choir pronounce foreign text?

  1. Avatar Sammy umoh says:

    wow! I’m learning a lot from the comments of different people. singing is a medium of communication. a clearer communication will involve both the right gestures , emotions and the right pronunciations.

  2. Avatar TT says:

    Consistency is probably more important than authenticity. Altos singing ‘heave a hippy die’ (to borrow Shelagh’s great example), with tenors singing ‘halve a hoppy day’ and sops coming out with ‘hev a harpy dee’ means that there will be no consistency and the timbre of sound will be affected. Usually a warm up can be devised to fix on a pronunciation and embed it. Vowel cycling is a great way to increase awareness of where the vowels are produced. Timing of dipthong transition is another interesting challenge…

    I sang under one MD who would have us amend our Latin pronunciation depending on the era of composition, whether the music was sacred or secular, and the native language of the composer. Just how ‘authentic’ any of that was is debatable – but it did mean everyone was focussed on producing the same sound – especially when there were two pieces in Latin on the one programme!

  3. Avatar Naomi Rankin says:

    I disagree with Shelagh on one point. Sometimes getting the consonants right is more important than the vowels. Many people hear and make an effort with the vowels and just assume the consonants are the same as in English. Also, although it takes work to learn the correct vowels, it is easier to describe and/or figure out how they are done. Consonants can be a puzzle. I have learned to spend more effort on consonants than vowels to get a less Anglophone sound.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Naomi. Your comment immediately makes me think about the difference between a British ‘L’ and a Russian ‘L’, which is formed in a completely different place in the mouth and throat.

  4. Avatar Valerie says:

    Thank you Victoria and Chris. A lot of thought has gone into your messages. I try to get a native speaker to read over the text of any solo song that I am doing and write it down as I hear it; repeat it to them and then ask for modifications. My choir are gradually singing in foreign languages. There was a bit of resistance at first, but most of them now enjoy singing “strange” sounds.

    As far as Latin goes, I believe there is Church Latin and Latin itself.

    SHELAGH, what a brilliant message. It had me giggling for ages. I am sure that my choir would now like a lesson on vowels and I hope I can be as funny as you.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Valerie

  5. Avatar Shelagh Rogers says:

    I think it is great fun to sing songs in foreign languages, provided someone knows the meaning of the words – as a Girl Guide donkeys years ago we had lots of campfire songs in French, German, Dutch, etc. and a campfire task for each patrol was to learn by heart a verse in someone else’s language. On the whole, I think you can get away with different nuances and somewhat unusual consonants, but vowels are a different matter and need careful consideration. Good moaning, or is it Good ufternane? one and all! Heave a hippy die.

  6. I always say to my choir that there will be at least one person in the audience that understands the language you’re singing in, whether that’s Serbo-Croat, Welsh or Japanese. In my experience it’s usually the case! We’ve had people come up to us in tears at the end saying how moved they were that we sung a song from their culture. We had some young women listening to us sing a song from Macedonia that they’d not heard before, but because they spoke the language, they joined in with each chorus repeat.

    So I would say it’s VITAL to get your pronunciation right. It’s respectful and helps to counter the complaint that we Brits just expect everyone to speak English. Also, it helps singers get outside themselves by feeling that they are from another culture which can liberate their singing.

    Not making the effort – in my opinion – is just laziness.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      I absolutely agree Chris. I was going to write something about showing respect to other cultures and languages, but the post was already getting a bit long! So thank you for mentioning that.

      As I said in the article, I think it’s very important to work hard on the text of any piece. The central point I was making, though, was that I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to pronounce things. Every language has a huge range of accents and dialects, so I think at the very most, we can say that there’s a range of ‘correct’ pronunciation. I’ve experienced this myself where different German coaches have insisted on different pronunciations for the same piece of music (not at the same time – I’m not fancy enough to have two German coaches!).

      I agree with you that there’s no excuse for laziness, but I would hate to think of people being put off singing in different languages because they were unsure of the pronunciation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *