TH – the Tooth Sounds
Dental TH sounds do not appear in many languages, but English has two. Often difficult to pronounce for learners, in today’s lesson we learn how to say them, how to join them, how they sound in posh & cockney accents, and whether we think they’ll disappear from Britain soon.
How to Pronounce TH
There are two dental TH sounds in English, both made by touching the tongue tip behind the top teeth and squeezing the air through. If you only squeeze air, the sound is /θ/, if you also use the voice, it’s /ð/ – come on then, all together “The thieves thought that the throne was authentic.”
On the other hand, there are a few words pronounced with /t/, like the river THAMES, the herb THYME, and the names THOMAS and ESTHER. If you meet anyone called ANTHONY, it’s probably best to ask first, as it can go either way.
/θ/ or /ð/?
CONTENT & FUNCTION
The voiceless sound /θ/ is found in most content words – THINK, THEATRE, AUTHORISE, MATHS, and BOTH to name a few. The voiced sound /ð/ is found in most function words – THE, THIS, THESE, THEM & THERE, though the function word WITH is commonly said both ways – /wɪð/ and /wɪθ/, something I’m sure you can deal with/with!
You may feel it’s neither here nor there, but voiced /ð/ is normally found before unstressed ‘er’ – RATHER, BROTHER, NORTHERN, ANOTHER, but not in THERMOMETER or ETHER, a word of Greek origin that is found most commonly in the phrase ‘disappear into the ether’, similar in meaning to ‘vanish into thin air‘.
Plurals & Verbs
Some verb/noun pairs are pronounced with /θ/ as a noun and /ð/ as a verb – so you MOUTH with your MOUTH, you BATHE in a BATH, and you BREATHE a BREATH of fresh air…. unless you’re in London, of course. Some plural content words take /ð/ – MOUTHS, BATHS, PATHS, TRUTHS and OATHS, but others don’t – FAITHS, BREATHS and WREATHS. Oh and it’s WORTH a mention that the adjective WORTHY is with /ð/.
TH & /z,s/
/ð/ in function words sometimes disappears completely if it’s preceded by /z/ – “is
that clear?”. Both TH sounds sometimes disappear when followed by /s/ or /z/ – so CLOTHES might be pronounced /ˈkləʊz/, and NINTHS may be /ˈnaɪns/. It’s actually really hard to pronounce TH sounds next to /s/ and /z/, and quite frankly, I can’t be bothered.
/t,d,l,n/ + TH
Many learners who are able to pronounce TH sounds in isolation, mispronounce them after /t, d, l, n/. Why? Because these sounds are also made on the teeth if they are followed by TH – , WIDTH, ALTHOUGH, ANTHOLOGY, HEARTTHROB. Compare the position of your tongue when you say the /n/ in AN, with the /n/ in ANTHOLOGY and you should notice the difference.
Hardly any languages contain dental fricative sounds, so TH presents a challenge to most learners of English. The most common errors are to replace them with /t/ and /d/, so THIN and TIN sound the same, as do THOSE and DOZE. French speakers might use /s/ and /z/ instead, so SINK and THINK are the same, at least I think so. Actually, without doubt, German speakers do it also like that.
TH in British Accents
All posh accents pronounce TH on the teeth, darling, but in Cockney /f/ and /v/ are preferred, though /d/ might appear at the beginning of a word instead. This is an authentic feature of multicultural London English too, innit, blad? But most regional English accents do actually make them on the teeth.
The Future of TH
There were shockwaves right through the heart of dental fricative fans all over Britain recently when reports surfaced claiming that dental TH sounds will die a death within 50 years, with many ironically claiming such a development is ‘unthinkable’. Personally, I think they should think again, dental TH sounds have survived well over a thousand years thus far, and are holding their own in American English. Nevertheless, if you are a British humanoid reading this in the year 2066, do you say /θ/ and /ð/, or is it not the done thing? I thank you in advance for your cooperation.