"th" Sound
[ Issue 39 ]

'th' Sound holds a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to 'th' Sound

"th" Sound

Harlish Goop  here discusses the history, orthography and current pronunciation of the English th sound. 

In the process, he manages to squeeze in reference to Chinese, French, German, ancient Greek, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Old Norse, Portuguese, Spanish and Welsh.

A cosmopolitan mag is Bikwil.

This time it's a consonant which sometimes causes problems for learners that I'd like to look at — though, as you’ll see, the trouble it causes for the foreign student is by no means the only noteworthy thing about it. Actually, it's a pair of consonants we're dealing with here: both are written th, but the sound is slightly different in each.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


A while back (Issue 34, November 2002) I wrote about difficulties faced by newcomers to English learning to pronounce our language. In that column my subject was the vowel known as schwa, or “mute e”.

This time it’s a consonant which sometimes causes problems for learners that I’d like to look at — though, as you’ll see, the trouble it causes for the foreign student is by no means the only noteworthy thing about it.

Actually, it’s a pair of consonants we’re dealing with here: both are written th, but the sound is slightly different in each.

Belonging to the group of sounds known to linguists as “fricatives” (a group that includes s and sh), the two sounds represented by th in modern English are pronounced by friction produced at a narrow constriction in the mouth when the tongue protrudes slightly through the front teeth.

The two sounds are distinguished one from the other by the characteristic of “voice”. The one is said to be “voiced”, because vibration of the vocal cords occurs as the sound is articulated, and the other is described as “voiceless”.

Here are five “minimal pairs” (a linguistic term used to show two similar utterances that differ in one sound only), which distinguish between the voiceless and voiced forms of th:

mouth (noun)/mouth (verb)

Etymologically, th in English corresponds to the similar sounds in Old Norse and Ancient Greek, but while Norse had both the voiced and voiceless forms, as far as I’m aware Greek had (and has) just the voiceless sound — represented in writing by the letter theta (θ). To paraphrase the OED, the Romans had neither the sound nor the symbol, and so represented the letter by th, but apparently this was pronounced, at least in late Latin (whence all the Romance languages) as a simple t. The OED gives the example of the Greek word θεωρία, which in Latin is theoria, Italian and Spanish teoria, Portuguese theoria and French théorie (the latter spelt with th and pronounced with t).

A handful of examples in English, by the way, where th is pronounced as t, are the words Thomas, Thames and thyme. There are also words where in writing t is followed by h, but in a different syllable. In these, the t and the h are pronounced separately, as in lighthouse and anthill.

Speaking of Norse, the names of the voiceless and voiced th sounds in that language were called thorn and edh. They were written as ž and š, respectively, and belonged to the Runic alphabet. This had been formed by modifying the letters of the Roman and Greek alphabets so as to avoid horizontal and curved strokes. This rendered cutting them on wood or stone easier.

According to my Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, runes are derived

. . . from a northern Etruscan alphabet used in the eastern Alps among Italic tribes, and . . . were developed in the 2nd or 3rd century AD by a Germanic people living in the region of modern Bohemia . . . A form of runes was used by laymen in Scandinavia throughout the Middle Ages as an alternative to Latin [used by the clergy], and runes were used in Sweden until modern times [17th century].

More to our point here, by the end of the ninth century the runic letters ž and š were being used in English manuscripts for the corresponding English voiceless and voiced sounds, but gradually they became used interchangeably. The OED continues:

After 1250 the š speedily became obsolete; ž remained in use, but was gradually restricted more or less to the pronominal and demonstrative words [e.g. thou, thee, their, this, that, those . . .]. In later times its MS. form approached, and at times became identical with, that of y (the latter being sometimes distinguished by having a dot placed over it).

In handwriting, this practice continued well into the 19th century.

But when printing presses started to be set up in Britain in the 1470s, the type and typesetters all came from Continental Europe, where thorn was not in use. England’s first printer William Caxton substituted th, on the European model (he’d learnt the art of printing in Cologne), but in Scotland printers began using the similar-looking y.

And this is how, ultimately, the modern attempt to appear quaint got it wrong. In “Ye Olde Shoppe” the word “Ye” contains the thorn substitute, not a true y. It should be pronounced “The”.

Coming back to pronunciation, even native English speakers can have a problem with th. This often occurs with children who can’t be bothered putting their tongues forward enough. The sounds of f and v are the result. The phenomenon also is to be found in the speech of certain (adult) pockets of so-called “Black English”.

Believe it or not, the opposite happens too. The OED tells us, “Dialectically th is sometimes substituted for f”.

Another problem that new and experienced English speakers alike can have is with clusters of consonants containing a th sound. Examples include the words sixth and months.

Some people who have trouble pronouncing the ll sound in Welsh (as in names like Llewellyn), and who don’t want to just say l, mistakenly treat it as a sort of th. Welsh ll is called an “aspirated l” (sometimes a “voiceless lateral fricative”), and the means of utterance is different from that of i. Some people advocate “try saying h and i simultaneously”, but easier advice to follow, perhaps, is to “place the tongue so as to say l and hiss out of the side of the mouth”. (Go on, try it.)

So far, we have speakers of Latin and French who find the th sound difficult. Certainly not speakers of Greek or Spanish, though, where the sound already exists in their language. In Spanish c (before e and i) and z are pronounced similarly to English th. The latter, however, is not the case in South American Spanish, where z is pronounced like i.

Other languages whose speakers have to assiduously practise saying th include Chinese and Japanese.

And what of German?

At university I encountered an unmistakable example of what we might call “phonetic denial” on this very point. Old Dr. von B. — one of two lecturers from Germany on the staff of the German Department — once asked the class what we reckoned the most difficult sound of English for Germans was. (He had w in mind, I think.)

Several of us volunteered th.

“Ach, nein. Zat is kvite easy.”

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