Thursday, 9 September 2010

to /θ/ or not to /θ/

Commenting on my blog on <th> as a digraph Jack Windsor Lewis nicely summed up the rules of thumb. It pleased him to arrange his various pieces of advice according to the types and classes of words containing <th>. There's nothing wrong at all with it. I'd like to give it a different twist and start with the position of the digraph:
(1) In word-initial position <th> is pronounced
  • /ð/ if it's a function word such as the, that, this, than; it's debatable whether you can call adverbs like then, there, thither, thence (the latter two also with voiceless initial <th> in General American) functions words;
  • /θ/ if it's a content word such as three, thick, thank, think, theatre, theme.
(2) In word-medial positions <th> is pronounced
  • /ð/ if the word is of Germanic origin: brother, father, worthy, weather, ...;
  • /θ/ if the word is of Greek, Latin or non-European origin: method, author, cathedral, Athapascan, ....
(3) In word-final position <th> is pronounced in GB
  • exclusively /ð/ in some cases: to mouth, eth (= letter name), with, smooth;
  • either /ð/ or /θ/ in booth, outwith, herewith, ...;
  • /θ/ only in bath, birth, month, north, ....

1 comment:

  1. If you ask any native speakers of English to say the sound of th you can be sure they'll say [θ]. That fact shd make a good guide for any users of Emglish as an extra language wondering whether a th stands for /θ/ or /ð/. If in dou’t plump for /θ/ but try to remember:
    Word-initially /ð/ occurs only in the mainly functional dozen common words (and their derivatives) than, that, the, their, them, then, there, these, this, those, though. Besides these there are only the mainly literary and archaic items thence, thither, thus, thou, thee, thine and thy.
    Word-medially /ð/ occurs in a moderate number of common words (and their derivatives) of fairly obviously Germanic origin including bother, brother, either, father, farther, further, gather, leather, mother, neither, other, rather, weather, whether, worthy. Less common items include bathe, clothing, (come)-hither, lathe, loathsome, northern, scathe, scythe, teething, tether, wreathe and a few plurals including baths, mouths, oaths, paths, wreaths, youths.
    Word-finally /ð/ occurs only in very a few exceptional items bequeath, booth, smooth, with.
    A few names have /t/ for th: Anthony, Esther, Thailand, Thames, Theresa, Thomas, Thompson. So do thyme and discotheque — tho not Pathé or Pathétique.
    In various combinations it's usually obvious that the t and the h dont belong together eg hothouse, shorthand, Chatham.