Why Do Some People Say "Yuge" Instead of "Huge"?

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It might be the one thing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common: they pronounce huge as "yuge."

It’s not so surprising that Sanders and Trump should share some dialect features in common. They were both born in New York in the 1940s. Indeed, this "yuge" for huge substitution has been a recognized feature of the New York City dialect for a long time, but it doesn’t only occur in New York. It’s found in Philadelphia and here and there around the U.S., as well as in the Irish cities of Cork and Dublin.

So do some people just randomly drop the "h" for no reason? Of course not. When people do it, they aren’t just randomly or lazily leaving off a sound. This "h"-dropping occurs in a specific environment—only in words that start with a "hyu." If they drop it in huge, they also drop it in humor, humid, humiliation, humongous, and Hugh.

Words that start with a consonant followed by "yu" have long been subject to the deletion of a sound. Think of the British pronunciations of tune, duty, suit, and news ("tyune," "dyuty," "syuit," "nyews"). That's the older pronunciation. In the U.S. as well as many other English speaking regions, the cluster of sounds before the u is reduced by eliminating the "y." Even so, that only happens if the first consonant is of the type produced by the contact of the tip of the tongue with the ridge behind the upper teeth ("t," "d," "s," "n," "l"). Other kinds of consonants let the "y" sound stick around (c[y]ure, p[y]unitive, b[y]eautiful, m[y]usic, f[y]ew…).

That "y" doesn’t stick around if you’re in East Anglia, where many towns have done away with the "y" clusters altogether by getting rid of "y" in all environments. There they say "bootiful" and "foo" for beautiful and few. Also, they say "hooge" for huge.

"Hooge" and "yuge" are two solutions to simplifying the "hyu" sound. In the East Anglia case the "y" gets dropped and in the New York case the "h" does. This wouldn’t be first example of a cluster getting reduced in two different ways. The word what has a similar story. Originally, it was like huge: it began with the cluster "hw" ("w" is, like "y," something called a “glide” sound, falling between a consonant and a vowel). What was "hwat." There was also "hwen," "hwistle," "hwale"—pretty much any word spelled with "wh" today once had a pronunciation of "hw." In some places, particularly the American South, Scotland, and Ireland, it still does. But mostly, the "h" was dropped and people say what and whale without it. However, in some words, like who and whole, the "w" was dropped instead.

So, yeah, it’s complicated. The point is, there’s an instability to these consonant + glide clusters that makes them prone to simplify, and that can play out in various ways. As for why it results in "yuge" for New Yorkers in particular, we don’t know exactly, except to say that the story of yuge, like that of all New York dialect features, will have something to do with generation, class, status, and the hustling, bustling mix of people from all over who both adapted and contributed as they tried to talk to each other. That’s the messy way language changes over time. It happens because we're yuman.