Consonant th phonemes

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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

  • 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.

  1. Pronunciation: Listening exercises
  2. Pronunciation: Production exercises
  3. Pronunciation: Controlled activities
  4. 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.

initial medial final
thigh thy wreaths wreathes bath bathe

breath breathe
loath loathe
mouth mouth(e) (e.g., to mouth off)

sheath sheathe
sooth soothe
teeth teethe
wreath wreathe

More commonly, though, non-natives have difficulty with /θ/ and /s/.

/s/ /θ/

And they have difficulty with /ð/ and /z/:

/z/ /ð/

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.

medial final
/z/ /ʒ/
/z/ /ʒ/

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Thin sticks, thick bricks.
  2. Pacific Lithograph
  3. Three free throws.
  4. Six thick thistle sticks
  5. Red leather, yellow leather.
  6. (I think that) this myth is a mystery to me.
  7. Cassie threw Cathy a thick math book.
  8. The Leith police dismisseth[1] us.
  9. Freddy Thrush flies through thick fog.
  10. Thelma sells thick thistles near the theater.
  11. He thinks he’d rather get married when he’s thirty-three years old.
  12. Is this your sister's sixth zither, sir?
  13. Three free thugs set three thugs free.
  14. Faith's face cloth, Faith's face cloth, Faith's face cloth.
  15. Thirty-three thousand people think that Thursday is their thirtieth birthday.
  16. I’d rather not bother my seething brothers for a few farthings.
  17. There are thirty thousand feathers on the thrush’s throat.
  18. Mr. Dithers goes hither and thither to lather his withering plants.
  19. The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick.
  20. Nathan sews with a thimble, while Ethan throws things at some sinners.
  21. The seething seas ceaseth and twice the seething seas sufficeth us.

Extended tongue twisters

1. A thought...

 I thought a thought.
 But the thought I thought
 Wasn't the thought I thought I thought.
 If the thought I thought I thought,
 Wasn’t the thought I thought,
 I wouldn't have thought so much.

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

See Phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ in spelling

4 More minimal pairs

4.1 /s/ and /θ/

initial medial final
cymbal thimble

sane thane
sank thank
saw thaw
sawn thorn
seam theme
seines thanes
serum theorem
sick thick
   sicken thicken
   sickly thickly
   sickness thickness
sigh thigh
sin thin
sink think
   sinkable thinkable
   sinking thinking
sinker thinker
sin thin
sinner thinner
soar Thor
sole thole
some thumb
song thong
sort thought
souse south
suds thuds
sues thews
sum thumb
   summed thumbed
   summing thumbing
sump thump
sums thumbs
sunder thunder
   sundered thundered
   sundering thundering
surd third

besought bethought

burst berthed
Essex ethics
frost frothed
tensely tenthly
sinned thinned
sinning thinning
unsinkable unthinkable
useful youthful
   usefully youthfully
usefulness youthfulness

bass bath

bypass bypath
ensues enthuse
face faith
force forth
gross growth
kiss kith
Miss myth
moss moth
mouse mouth
Norse north
pass path
Perth purse
race wraith
sluice sleuth
tense tenth
truce truth
use youth
worse worth

4.2 /z/ and /ð/

initial medial final
zee thee
z’s these
Zen then
breezed breathed

breezing breathing
closed clothed
   closing clothing
rising writhing
   seized seethed
   seizing seething
teased teethed
   teasing teething
wizard withered

baize bathe

boos booth
breeze breathe
close clothe
lays lathe
lies lithe
lows loathe
rise writhe
seize seethe
she's sheathe
size scythe
sous soothe
sways swathe
tease teethe
ties tithe

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/

initial medial final
thing zing
think zinc
(none) berth burrs

both bows
death Des
doth does
earth errs
eighteenth eighteens
eleventh elevens
faith phase
fifteenth fifteens
filth fills
firth firs / furs
fourteenth fourteens
fourth fours
growth grows
hath has
health hells
heath he's
hundredth hundreds
Keith keys
Keuth quays

loth lows

millionth millions
mouth mows
myth Ms
'neath knees
nineteenth nineteens
ninth nines
north gnaws
oath O's
oath owes
path pars
path parse
Perth purrs
ruth rues
ruth ruse
saith says
seventeenth seventeens
seventh sevens
sleuth slews
sloth sloes / slows

sooth sous

south sows
teeth T's
teeth teas
teeth tease
tenth tens
thirteenth thirteens
tilth tills
tooth twos
trillionth trillions
truth trews
warmth warms
wealth wells
withe whiz
worth whirrs
wraith raise
wraith rays
youth U's
youth use

5 See also

  1. This is an older English verb ending – like "thou (you) goest, he goeth."

5.1 Other pages