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”.
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.
it’s a pair of consonants we’re dealing with here: both are written
th, but the sound is slightly different in each.
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
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
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:
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).
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.
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.
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].
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:
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).
handwriting, this practice continued well into the 19th century.
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.
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”.
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”.
it or not, the opposite happens too. The OED tells us,
“Dialectically th is sometimes substituted for f”.
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.
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.)
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.
languages whose speakers have to assiduously practise saying
Chinese and Japanese.
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.)
of us volunteered th.
nein. Zat is kvite easy.”