THthe 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 handthere 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!

THER

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/.

Joining TH

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. 

Common Errors

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. 

th-robot

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By | 2017-01-23T12:48:27+00:00 November 26th, 2016|Pronunciation|29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Andrés Cid November 26, 2016 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Superb, as usual!!! Thanks a lot for your help.

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:25 am - Reply

      Not at all, thanks for the comment Andrés!

  2. Diego Picker November 26, 2016 at 10:07 am - Reply

    Thank you.

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:26 am - Reply

      You’re more than welcome, Diego, thanks for the comment.

  3. RAMANIE GOONERATNE November 26, 2016 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Thank you so much. It’s so helpful.

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:26 am - Reply

      The pleasure’s all mine Ramanie, thanks for the comment!

  4. Christina November 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    I very much enjoy your articles. I was told to position the tongue between the teeth, rater than behind the top teeth for TH sound, but I will practice according to your advice. Thank you!

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:28 am - Reply

      Thanks Christina. Sometimes when we teach TH to begin with, we encourage students to put their tongues further forward between the teeth to make the correct type of connection, but once the sound is well established, it’s rare to continue doing that – there isn’t time in connected speech. Having said that, the sound itself is no different either way.

      • Christina November 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm - Reply

        Thank you very much for clarifying Joseph.

  5. Jerzy November 26, 2016 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Thank you that’s very helpful. My mother tongue is polish and i struggle the most with making this sound in particular. Just out of interest would you be able to feature main features of mle on the blog because I know quite many people who speak it and would read about it just out of complete interest

    • Joseph Hudson November 28, 2016 at 10:06 am - Reply

      Hi Jerzy, thanks for your comment, I’m glad the article is helpful. An article on MLE (Multicultural London English) will definitely feature on the blog in 2017.

  6. Paolo November 26, 2016 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    Dank you! I mean… thank you!

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:31 am - Reply

      Thanks Paolo, as long as you don’t ‘sink me’, everything will be fine!

  7. Roberto November 26, 2016 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Perhaps it might be worth thinking about the target students you bear in mind when posting articles like this. Indeed, the pronunciation of the dental fricatives represents an issue for elementary, pre-intermediate or intermediate learners of English, who can hardly understand your jokes or follow the pace of your speech. On the other hand, if upperintermediate or advanced students are your ideal readers, they can manage these sounds already and will just benefit from your sense of humour.

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:36 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Roberto. It’s certainly true that a lot of advanced learners are able to pronounce both TH sounds in isolation, but it does very much depend on their mother tongue and learning background. It is quite rare though, to find a second language speaker who has mastered all the aspects of joining TH sounds in fast connected speech, particularly with /t,d,l,n/, without having had specific training in it. So I hope there’s something for all levels in the article, and if not, the terrible jokes might just get you through – though that may be wishful thinking on my part.

  8. Fekry Abdulmajeed Nasher November 26, 2016 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    I want reinforcement my language

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:38 am - Reply

      Hi Fekry, if you’re looking for pronunciation resources and classes, please see our START page where you can download materials and find details of upcoming intro lessons: http://pronunciationstudio.com/

  9. Steve November 27, 2016 at 1:32 am - Reply

    A really good summary of this complicated and troublesome phoneme pair. Thank you Joseph!

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:39 am - Reply

      Thanks Steve! You would appear to be in THAILAND – there’s another TH pronounced with /t/.

  10. Haydeh Shahravesh November 27, 2016 at 5:58 am - Reply

    Thanks a lot, pronouncing th correctly was always so difficult for me.
    ☺The article is quite helpful. ☺

    • Joseph Hudson November 27, 2016 at 10:40 am - Reply

      Thanks Haydeh, I’m glad the article’s helped!

  11. suzy November 27, 2016 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    First of all, thanks for this beneficial article. Secondly, I have no problem producing these two sounds as we have them in our mother tongue. So, it is too easy for me to pronounce any word containing those sounds.

    • Joseph Hudson November 30, 2016 at 4:02 pm - Reply

      Thanks Suzy, and lucky you – there’s nothing like having TH sounds in your first language to make the learning process easier!

  12. E N Pick November 28, 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    superb presentation…love it

    • Joseph Hudson November 30, 2016 at 4:04 pm - Reply

      Thank you!

  13. IM November 29, 2016 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Really well explained Joseph, thank you very much!

  14. Asma sadaf November 29, 2016 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Very nice and informative, thank you ….

  15. Naomi November 29, 2016 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Your article is on point. Hoped to be one of your student soon.

  16. Peronne Christian November 30, 2016 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much.I am french!!!You help me a lot.

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