The <th> sound, which is very prominent in British English, is poised to be lost by 2066 due to multiculturalism. Linguists predict that in 50 years, the sound will no longer be heard on London’s streets, and you might hear “fink” instead of ”think.”
”Th,” a sound that is produced by placing the tongue against the upper teeth, is very difficult for many foreigners to do because it is not a part of their language. In London, a dream city for many migrants from Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, its ever-increasing multiethnic community struggles with interdental consonant pronunciations.
At the moment, Estuary English, which is a hybrid of received pronunciation (RP) and Cockney, and the prevalent speech pattern in South East, has already been taken over by Multicultural London English or MLE, which is strongly influenced by Asian, West African and Caribbean communities.
According to linguists from the University of York, projected immigration coming within the next few years will have a great effect on the language.
The <th> sound
The origin of the <th>sound is Proto-Germanic. Through Grimm’s law, the Proto-Indo-European “t” sound was converted into a voiceless dental fricative. In other Germanic languages, the sound was lost and replaced by T or D. The other major Germanic language to retain it is Icelandic, best shown in the Icelandic ”Þrír” that means ”three” in English. The symbol Þ is the Icelandic equivalent of th.
Many foreigners have difficulty pronouncing this because it is not included in their language. Moreover, th sound is not included in some English language varieties.
In Cockney and other varieties used in Southern England, the th sound is replaced with an F sound. In the Caribbean, the English varieties only use T, while Indian English uses the aspirated dental T. The dental T is the normal way speakers of Southern Irish English pronounce it.
”Th” is a digraph that a voiced dental fricative /ð/ an in ”this” or a voiceless dental fricative /θ/ like in the word ”thing.”
The voiced dental fricative sound /ð/ features:
- Fricative articulation – the sound is produced by allowing air to flow through a constricted passage during articulation.
- The articulation location is dental, with the tip of the tongue touching the back of your upper teeth.
- Your vocal cords vibrate during the articulation, meaning that it’s a voiced phonation.
Examples of voiced dental fricative include then, their, those, this and the.
On the other hand, the voiceless dental fricative /θ/ has these features:
- Its articulation is likewise fricative, although there is more airflow.
- The articulation location is dental. The sound created is produced by resting the blade of the tongue against the lower part of your upper teeth’s back.
- The tongue’s tip sticks out slightly from the mouth as the sound is made.
- It’s a voiceless phonation meaning the vocal cords do not vibrate.
Threat, thorough, through, thought and thing are just some of the examples of voiceless dental fricative.
There are no specific rules to follow when a word has a voiceless <th> sound or a voiced <th> sound.
But there are some things that may help you in the pronunciation. You can place them into three categories: <th> at the start of the word, <th> in the middle and <th> at a word’s end. Let us discuss them further.
- At the beginning of a word, the <th> is voiceless like in throw, think, thought or threat. This is true in most cases. However, the function words such as the pronouns those, these, that, this, the, their, them and they and the conjunctions and adverbs like thereafter, thereby, therefore, though, thus, than, there and then normally begin with the voiced /ð/ <th>.
- In the middle of most English words, <th> is voiced, just like in these words: whether, weather, together, further, rather, brother, mother, father or either. But in most loans words, <th> is voiceless when it is in the middle, such as in mythical, method, lethal, mathematics, ethics, enthusiasm and cathedral.
- When <th> is located at the end of adjectives and nouns, such as in teeth, tooth, breath, cloth and bath, it becomes a voiceless digraph. But it is voiced in verbs like writhe, soothe, loathe and breathe.
In the Future
Based on the projection of linguistic experts from University of York, the voiced <th> sound would probably be substituted by V, D or F. This could make mother sound like ”muvver” and ”fick” would likely be the pronunciation of thick.
On the other hand, the H that became a silent letter in the Cockney dialect is projected to make a comeback. Therefore the current ”ere” would become ”here” once again, according to sociolinguistics expert Dr. Dominic Watt of the University of York. He said that it would be more evident in London, which is considered as the most linguistically influential city.
The linguists have studied the pattern over the years. They believe that the sound structure of words would be simplified and might become shorter. Dr. Watts observed that the British accents are no longer exclusively based on social class.
Other changes that are likely to happen include:
- Yod dropping wherein the U sound will be supplanted by OO, thus, beauty would likely sound like “booty,” news would become ”nooze” and duke would be ”dook.”
- Consonant smushing, which makes two sounds to collapse at the same time and appear indistinguishable, such as ”red” and ”wed.”
- The letter L at the end of the word will also be dropped, so words like ”pool,” ”paw” and ”Paul” are likely to sound the same. The final T in ”text” will be dropped as well.
- Artificial intelligence (AI) will likely have an impact also and will develop or invent new words.
This is a very likeable scenario, given that dictionaries have already added modern-day text, words and phrases into their compilation. The prediction of the loss of the th sound is included in The Sounds of the Future 2006 report, which is a result of analyzing 50 years’ worth of recordings and use of language in social media.
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