So, League of Nerds, since you alluded to it in your last fabulous post, why is the “th” sound so weird?
The “th” sound is the ruination of English-second-language students the world over, and its weirdness is so all-encompassing that we’re going to have to split it up. Let’s go pronunciation first, then spelling.
First of all, there are two “th” sounds. Say “breathe” and “breath,” “teethe” (like a teething baby) and “teeth.” The two sound are made with exactly the same mouth shape, but the first is voiced (you vibrate your vocal chords) and the other is voiceless (you’re just blowing air). There are a ton of these voiced/voiceless pairs in English — z and s, v and f, b and p, g and k (say them with your hand on your neck and you can feel when your chords are vibrating and when they’re not). Notice how we very sensibly use different letters for the two sounds in these other pairs. Notice how very insensibly we completely fail to do that for the two “th” sounds. While we’re noticing, go ahead and notice that in “thy” and “thigh” we write “th” both times but they make two different sounds, while “y” and “igh” get different spellings but make the same sound. See why non-native speakers hate this?
So to talk about this we’re going to need some Extremely Fancy Linguist Notation (EFLN), which you’ll probably find handy every day for the rest of your life. When we refer to the written symbols, we use pointy brackets, <>, but when we refer to sounds we use slashes, //. So in “cats,” we write <c> but say /k/. When we write <th> we make two sounds, neither of which is anything like t+h, so we use two other symbols, the letter eth /ð/ for voiced (as in “the, they, those”) and for voiceless (“think, three, bath”) the letter theta /θ/ (remember θ from trig? Tanθ=sinθ/cosθ? Good times). (Whoa, is it just me or is today Parentheticals Day?)
Now /θ/ in particular is a really rare sound. Out of all the modern languages that have at least 10 million speakers, here is a complete list of the ones that use /θ/:
Castillian Spanish (not the majority of Spanish, only Spanish in Spain)
Standard Arabic (not any of the dialects that people speak most of the time, just the academic-y standard)
Finished. That’s it. Every other big-name language has said “Thanks but no thanks, we will keep our tongues firmly in our mouths and not go sticking them between our teeth to make goofy sounds like you weirdos.” Several varieties of English itself also drop /θ/ and /ð/ like a pair of hot potatoes — Jamaican English and African American Vernacular use /t/ and /d/, and some British varieties use /f/ and /v/ (“I’m not bovvered!”).
So why, why why why, do we spell these two sounds with <th>? Long story very short, because languages change over time. In Ye Extremely Olde Greek the letter θ was used to symbolize a strongly aspirated /t/ sound (the /t/ had a big puff of air after it). When Latin-speakers started writing down Greek words, they figured that “/t/ + puff of air” was best written as <th>. Once this was all nice and settled, the Greeks went and changed their pronunciation, and where they used to say /t + h/ they now said /θ/, which is why we use that symbol for that sound in the first place. The Latin-speakers didn’t feel up to the challenge of fixing the spelling, and <th> spread throughout Europe as a variation of /t/. Remember that French is a Latin-based language, we will come back to that at the end of the next paragraph.
In England at around the turn of the first millennium they were using not the main Latin-y alphabet, but a different Germanic-runes-influenced Latin-ish alphabet. They had both sounds /θ/ and /ð/ in their language and they had two symbols, ð itself (that’s where that one comes from) and þ (called “thorn”), but in the true English good-luck-learning-this style they used both symbols interchangeably for the two sounds. (They didn’t really need to distinguish which <th> was which because back then they were allophones, but that’s another post.) When the French came through with good ol’ Willy the Conq, they replaced both of those simply barbaric runes with the classy Latin <th> they knew and loved. Little did the French know that they were setting themselves up for centuries of being mocked for saying “ze” instead of “the”! Ha HAH!
Now, what about that pseudo-archaic “ye” that I used to make a lame joke above? Where does that come from? Monks and Gutenberg! And the French, again. The French managed to kick <ð> out pretty quickly, but li’l <þ> was holding its own. Medieval scribes used <þ> to concisely write lots of pronouns (I’ve mentioned before how much scribes loved abbreviations). So <þ> with a tiny <e> over it was “the,” with a tiny <t> over it was “that,” etc. <þ> seemed to have a secure place in the English alphabet, when suddenly the printing press showed up. And who was making all the little typeface bits that England was importing? The French, naturally. And were the French about to start making <þ> bits just because England wanted them? Non! The English substituted with <y> for a while, because it looked similar to <þ> in the fancy typeface of the time. Because everyone knew that <y> was actually supposed to be the monks’ <þ>, no one ever pronounced it with a “y” sound, only ever with a “th” sound. “Ye” just meant “the.” This was all for a relatively brief time since everyone quickly decided that the <y> thing was pretty stupid and they should just give in to <th> (though you wouldn’t guess it from the number of Ye Olde Shoppes that have sprung up since).
This lovely story is very similar to the tale of <ph> as well, but it’s going to be a while before I can work up the courage to dive into the mess that is <ch>.
Wow, any discussion of The History of English is liable to bump up against Latin, William the Conqueror, and medieval monks, but all three in one post? I call that a winner!
The Language Nerd
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! firstname.lastname@example.org
Or: Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
In stark contrast to last week’s pile of scholarly journals, this week my big reference is Wikipedia. What can I say? They’ve got a page for practically every phone that shows every language that uses it! What could be lovelier?
(That’s a linguistic phone, a unit of sound, not like a cell phone. Though I suppose Wikipedia has a page for every cell phone, too.)
And they have letters as well as sounds!
The intro to this paper is interesting too.
And of course, all my love to Etymonline!
Brought to you by the League of Nerds