These three things

Posted by on July 01, 2013

For the past six months we’ve had the absolute pleasure of having Gill Francis as one of our regular contributors on the blog. Gill’s written some fantastic posts and asked some very poignant questions about language change in general and grammar in particular. Following in Gill’s footsteps is Jonathan Marks. We welcome Jonathan as our next regular contributor! Jonathan is of course not completely new to Macmillan Dictionary Blog having written for us before about verbing/nouning, plain English and on the topic of Latin in school curricula. We look forward to bringing you more thoughtful posts and comments by Jonathan for the rest of this year.

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© Macmillan Mexico / Mark RuffleHere’s a puzzle for you: A little boy went to the baker’s. His mother had told him to buy three loaves of bread. He bought two loaves, brought them home, and then ran back to the shop, bought another loaf, brought it home and put it on the kitchen table together with the other two. Why?

The answer (well, there might be other answers, but this is the answer I know) is that he couldn’t pronounce ‘th’. The two ‘th’ sounds (voiceless as in think and voiced as in this) are notoriously tricky for many learners of English. If you are one of these, you might take some consolation from the fact that even native-speaking children have trouble with these sounds; they are typically among the last sounds to be acquired, often not before the age of five or so. Before this, children tend to use ‘f’ and ‘v’ instead, so we can assume that our little boy who went to the baker’s would have pronounced three as ‘free’.

Furthermore, ‘th’ sounds are not used at all in some native accents of English. For example, the use of ‘f’ and ‘v’ for the ‘th’ sounds is popularly associated with the traditional Cockney accent, but this feature has recently been spreading as a characteristic of Estuary English.

Let’s turn our attention to international English. If you regularly speak English with speakers of other languages, you may have noticed how they deal with ‘th’ sounds; many people use either ‘s’ and ‘z’ or ‘t’ and ‘d’. Research into English as an international language so far tends to suggest that more misunderstandings and communication breakdowns are due to pronunciation than to other causes (such as grammar or vocabulary) but that not all features of pronunciation are equally important in ensuring intelligibility. For example, consonant sounds in general are important, but with the exception of … guess what? … the ‘th’ sounds! So the misunderstanding shown in this amusing video is, fortunately, unlikely to arise in reality.

In other words, if you find ‘th’ sounds difficult, perhaps you don’t need to worry about them; substituting other sounds for them will probably enable listeners to understand you easily. If you really do want to produce ‘th’ sounds, though, here’s a tip. It’s often thought that the way to do it is to squeeze the tip of your tongue between your teeth, but this is both unnecessary and potentially dangerous! All you need to do is to relax your mouth – don’t put your upper and lower teeth together – rest the tip of your tongue very lightly against the back of your teeth and force air out – but gently, don’t overdo it – through the gap between your tongue and your teeth.

To recap, remember these three things (vese free fings, zese sree sings, dese tree tings):

1 Anyone can pronounce ‘th’ sounds with practice. Reducing the level of tension in your mouth, and thinking of ‘th’ as a light, relaxed sound will probably help.
2 Even English-speaking children take a long time to master ‘th’ sounds, and some English-speaking adults never use them.
3 You’ll probably find that you, too, can get by without them.

Comments (3)
  • Gentlemen:

    It´s a very good article, and it’s true, Spanish learners have dificulty in pronouncing “th” silent and with vibration.

    Posted by Sivia Rodriguez on 11th July, 2013
  • [...] These three things | Macmillan. [...]

    Posted by These three things | Macmillan | On Education on 11th July, 2013
  • Sivia (Silvia?): Yes, the Castilian Spanish equivalent of the voiceless English th is pronounced much more energetically, and it’s more common to see the speaker’s tongue protruding slightly between the teeth.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 17th July, 2013
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