Consonant th phonemes
The English diagraph represents two different phonemes in English: the voiceless dental fricative /θ/ as in "thin" and the voiced dental fricative /ð/ as in "this." Both sounds pose challenges for ESL/EFL learners, whose first languages probably lack these sounds, as both sounds are relatively uncommon throughout the world's languages. English spelling further complicates learning, since it does not distinguish the voiced and voiceless sounds. Here, slash marks like /θ/ and /ð/ denote phonemes, while angled brackets like denote letters or spelling.
- 1 Linguistic description
- 2 Practice activities and materials
- 3 Distribution: /ð/ and /θ/ in spelling patterns
- 4 More minimal pairs
- 5 See also
1 Linguistic description
- Place of articulation: The tongue tip softly touches the back of the front teeth, primarily. It can also touch more on the alveolar gum ridge above the teeth, or may protrude between the teeth, but behind the teeth is the primary locus of the sound. Thus, it is called a dental (or sometimes interdental) fricative.
- Manner of articulation: This is a fricative sound, i.e., a friction sound. The air stream is forced through and around a narrowed aperture, creating a friction sound. However, these two sounds differ from other fricatives like /s/, /z/, /f/, /v/ and others, in that these sounds are produced with less energy and volume than other fricatives.
- Phonation: These two sounds differ in terms of voicing, or vibration from the vocal cords (glottis). The /θ/ sound is made with no vibration, i.e., voiceless or unvoiced, just like /s/. The /ð/ sound is produced with vibration, i.e., voiced.
1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison
These sounds are rather uncommon across languages of the world.
- The voiceless /θ/ occurs in Albanian, Burmese, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, and Welsh. A similar sound occurs in some European dialects of Spanish, where the letter <z> is lisped like /θ/, but often with a flatter tongue.
- The voiced /ð/ occurs in Albanian, Arabic, Icelandic, and Welsh; it also occurs as a variant (allphone) of other sounds in Hebrew, Greek, and Spanish (the d between consonants as in adios).
The symbol /θ/ is from the Greek letter theta, while the symbol /ð/ known as eth or thagaz is from Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon writing systems, and ultimately comes from the Runic alphabet.
1.2 Teaching /θ/ and /ð/ production
Learners can start with the /s/ or /z/ sounds, and move the tongue tip behind the teeth, and to produce soft friction there. They can place their hands on their throats to feel the glottal vibration, beginning with /s/ and /z/, and then with /θ/ and /ð/.
Some learners may have been taught to mainly stick the tongue between the upper and lower teeth, which is not ideal, as this can look awkward, and they should be taught to mainly touch behind the teeth. These sounds may sound like other fricatives (especially on older telephones or other devices with poor sound quality), but learners can distinguish the sounds from others by their lower volume and energy. Most words with /θ/ are more academic and technical words that come from Greek, while /ð/ is more common in function words (minor grammatical categories such as the, this, that), and in older words derived morphologically from θ (e.g., bath - bathe), as described in Phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ in spelling. Thus, ESL/EFL learners at an intermediate or advanced level can be taught that new words that they encounter with , especially academic words, are likely words from Greek with the /θ/ pronunciation (e.g., thermodynamics, dysthymia).
2 Practice activities and materials
Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /θ/ cf. /ð/, /θ/ cf. /s/, and /ð/ cf. /z/. These contrasts should be shown with minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial, consonant cluster, medial, and final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.
- Pronunciation: Listening exercises
- Pronunciation: Production exercises
- Pronunciation: Controlled activities
- Pronunciation: Interactive activities
2.1 Minimal pairs
There are only a few contrastive word pairs for /ð/ and /θ/, and some of these are old words.
|thigh thy||wreaths wreathes||bath bathe
|sheath sheathe |
More commonly, though, non-natives have difficulty with /θ/ and /s/.
And they have difficulty with /ð/ and /z/:
There are also few with a /z/ - /ʒ/ distinction (the palatal fricative as in pleasure); some of these are rare words or European place names.
For more minimal pairs, see below.
2.2 Minimal pair sentences
To teeth(e), teething: When a baby or puppy has new teeth coming in, experiences gum and tooth soreness, and needs to chew on something to relieve the discomfort.
- When a baby’s new teeth come in, she experiences teething pains, and has to teethe on something.
2.3 Tongue twisters
Try the following tongue twisters.
- Thin sticks, thick bricks.
- Pacific Lithograph
- Three free throws.
- Six thick thistle sticks
- Red leather, yellow leather.
- (I think that) this myth is a mystery to me.
- Cassie threw Cathy a thick math book.
- The Leith police dismisseth us.
- Freddy Thrush flies through thick fog.
- Thelma sells thick thistles near the theater.
- He thinks he’d rather get married when he’s thirty-three years old.
- Is this your sister's sixth zither, sir?
- Three free thugs set three thugs free.
- Faith's face cloth, Faith's face cloth, Faith's face cloth.
- Thirty-three thousand people think that Thursday is their thirtieth birthday.
- I’d rather not bother my seething brothers for a few farthings.
- There are thirty thousand feathers on the thrush’s throat.
- Mr. Dithers goes hither and thither to lather his withering plants.
- The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick.
- Nathan sews with a thimble, while Ethan throws things at some sinners.
- The seething seas ceaseth and twice the seething seas sufficeth us.
Extended tongue twisters
|1.||A thought... |
I thought a thought.
|2.||She is a thistle-sifter. She has a sieve of unsifted thistles and a sieve of sifted thistles and the sieve of unsifted thistles she sifts into the sieve of sifted thistles because she is a thistle-sifter.|
|3.||Theophilus Thadeus Thistledown, the successful thistle-sifter, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles, thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb. Now, if Theophilus Thadeus Thistledown, the successful thistle-sifter, thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb, see that thou, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles, thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb.|
3 Distribution: /ð/ and /θ/ in spelling patterns
4 More minimal pairs
4.1 /s/ and /θ/
|bass bath |
4.2 /z/ and /ð/
|baize bathe |
In some dialects of British and New England English, "with" is pronounced with /ð/ instead of /θ/, leading to a minimal pair of "whiz - with."
4.3 /θ/ versus /z/
|sooth sous |
5 See also
- This is an older English verb ending – like "thou (you) goest, he goeth."