How to pronounce TH in English
Today we are going to learn how to pronounce TH in English! A sound (actually two!) that is unusual for most learners, but which nevertheless exists in several languages around the world: not only in English but in Greek, Spanish and even Albanian!
“TH” is actually the Latin transcription of the Greek sound /θ/ . This grapheme was used to transcribe loanwords from Greek, but was still pronounced as a simple /t/ .
Since India has remained very conservative and has kept the Hindi spelling of many words, the TH also appears in Hindi: as in the words “theater” or “myth”, for example, while the H has no meaning.
The TH is therefore not completely unknown to you!
In English, this grapheme has not only kept its spelling , but it has also kept its pronunciation .
Now let’s see how to pronounce it in English!
Let’s start by seeing how to pronounce TH in English . The sound /θ/ occurs by placing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth to block the passage of air.
Your vocal cords remain at rest : if you make the sound last, you should not feel vibrations in your vocal cords. Natives produce this sound quickly and naturally in such a way that the tip of the tongue barely passes between the front teeth.
As we saw in our article on the 14 English sounds that do not exist in Hindi, for a Hindi speaker who learns to make this sound, there are two risks:
- First, you may find that placing your tongue between the incisors is unnatural and therefore doing things half-heartedly, hesitantly , and therefore not placing the tip of your tongue far enough.
- Then the other risk is trying to do things too subtly , too quickly, and therefore, again, not placing your tongue far enough.
Either way, you would be making an /s/ sound when you thought you were making the correct /θ/ sound . Compare:
If you keep the same position of the mouth , but you use your vocal cords , this time you will produce the sound /ð/ , the voiced version of TH. The Indian tend to pronounce this /z/ sound , but compare the two instead:
Keep in mind that /θ/ and /ð/ are two different TH sounds ! It is therefore necessary to know which sound to use according to the word.
To start well and quickly succeed in articulating these sounds, it is best to exaggerate things at first .
To exaggerate, it’s simple: place the tongue frankly far away, placing the tip of the tongue in front of the upper teeth :
This allows you to produce the sounds for sure, and you are then sure to be understood by English speakers.
Here are two videos that perfectly illustrate the difference between these two sounds:
Voiced or unvoiced?
How can we know if the TH should be pronounced /θ/ or /ð/ , when it is written the same way?
Here are the general rules:
The TH is voiceless, or pronounced /θ/ when:
- it is at the beginning of lexical words (noun, adjective, verb, adverb), as in the words think /θɪŋk/ , thick /ˈθɪk/ and thumb /ˈθəm/ .
- it comes before a consonant, as in the word bath t ub /ˈbɑːθ təb/ .
- it occurs at the end of the word, as in the words math /ˈmæθ/ , both /boʊθ/ , and almost all ordinal numbers in English .
The voiced TH
The TH is voiced, or pronounced /ð/ when:
- it is found at the beginning of functional words (words that do not represent a specific thing or action), such as the /ˈðə/ , this /ðɪs/ , that /ðæt/ , these /ˈðiːz/ , those /ðoʊz/ , etc
- it is between two vowels, as in the words mother /ˈməð ɝ/ , father /ˈfað ɝ/ , feather /fɛðɝ/ , etc., but also between a vowel and a silent E, as in the words bathe / beɪð / and breathe /bɹið/ .
The only special case is the word with , which can be pronounced with a voiced or unvoiced TH: we can therefore say with or with !
Common words with TH
The TH grapheme is widely used in English. Here are the most common words where it is found:
- the /ˈðə/ = the, the, the
- though /ðoʊ/ = however
- through /θɹu/ = through
- thanks /θæŋks/ = thank you
- thought /θɔt/ = a thought, to think about the preterit
- three /θɹi/ = three
- thursday /ˈθɜrz deɪ/ = Thursday
Since this sound is not present in many languages, learners of English tend to pronounce it /s/ , /f/ or /d/ , i.e. sounds of their own language which s come as close as possible. Keep in mind that if you don’t pronounce the TH correctly, you can change the meaning of the words.
Here’s what will happen if you don’t pronounce it right:
/s/ instead of /θ/
First, listen to the two sounds one after the other: /s/ ; /θ/ Do you agree that these are two completely different sounds?
And now compare these words which differ from each other only in sound:
- think /θɪŋk/ = to think and sink /sɪŋk/ = a sink, to sink
- thing /θɪŋ/ = a thing, something and sing /sɪŋ/ = to sing
- thank /θæŋk/ = to thank and sank /sæŋk/ = to sink in past tense
- faith /feɪθ/ = conviction, belief and face /feɪs/ = face
- fourth /fɔːɹθ/ = fourth and strength /fɔːɹs/ = strength
- tenth /tɛnθ/ = tenth and tense /tɛns/
/f/ instead of /θ/
Compare the two sounds: /f/ ; /θ/
Here’s what would happen if you said /f/ instead of /θ/ :
- death /dɛθ/ = death and deaf /dɛf/ = deaf
- thought /θɔt/ = to think about the past and fought /fɔt/ = to fight the past
- thirst / θɝst / = thirst and first /fɝst/ = first
? In some English accents, the sound /θ/ may be pronounced /f/ and the sound /ð/ may be pronounced /v/ , like the London Cockney accent! Here is an example of this accent; pay attention to words with TH:
/d/ instead of /ð/
Compare the two sounds: /d/ and /ð/
And here’s what would happen if you get them mixed up:
- dose /doʊz/ = a dose and those /ðoʊz/ = these
- dough /doʊ/ = the dough and though /ðoʊ/ = however
- dare /dɛɹ/ = to dare and there /ðɛɹ/ = there, over there
- sued /sud/ = to prosecute (in court) in the past tense and soothe /suð/ = to calm, soothe
/θ/ and /ð/
And now, the advanced version! Sometimes if you reverse the two pronunciations of TH in English, you may also change the meaning of the word. Note that it is quite rare, but it is good to know! Again, the only difference between /θ/ and /ð/ are the vocal cords: if you use them, you will produce the voiced sound, and if you don’t use them, you will produce the unvoiced sound.
- ether /’ɪθ ɝ/ = ether and either /’ɪð ɝ/ = either
- mouth /ˈmaʊθ/ = bouche and mouth /ˈmaʊð/ = to articulate silently -> Here even the spelling is identical, the only difference is that the TH in the noun ( a mouth ) is unvoiced and it is voiced in the verb ( to mouth )
- sooth /suːθ/ = truth, reality, fact and soothe / suːð / = calm, appease
Finally, we leave you with these three English tongue twisters to practice TH sounds in English:
They threw three thick things. /ðeɪ ˈθruː ˈθriː ˈθɪk ˈθɪŋz/
Three thin thieves thought a thousand thoughts. Now if three thin thieves thought a thousand thoughts how many thoughts did each thief think?
- Thirty thousand thoughtless boys thought they would make a thundering noise. So the thirty thousand thumbs thumbed on the thirty thousand drums.