Accent Reduction For Professionals (2015)

Chapter 6: Conquering the “th” sound



Just when you think the English language couldn’t get much more confusing, we’re moving from the hard “r” sound to the “th” sound. This is another aspect of the English language that frequently even gives native speakers a difficult time.


While I was in speech therapy for the “r” sound, my best friend was going through the same instruction, only for the “th” sound.


But, while it may be – dare I say – “foreign” to you, you’ll soon be conquering the pronunciation of these two letters just as you have done with all the other tricky sounds we’ve thrown your way.


In this chapter, we’re going to talk about the two subtle, yet different sounds these two letters make depending on the words in which they’re included. Linguists refer to the two sounds as either “voiced” or “unvoiced.”


The voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds are the only pair that actually use the same spelling – which, you can undoubtedly guess, only adds to the confusion. This sound is also problematic, because to be truthful, most Americans probably can’t tell the difference most of the time. If we were to take the time to truly listen closely enough, we’d be able to detect. Before you’re done reading this chapter you’ll probably be able to tell the difference yourself. The next natural step then is to embrace the differences and conquer the sounds.


How to Pronounce these Sounds


As we mentioned the differences in sound are subtle. It should come as no surprise then that the way you pronounce them are also very much alike.  Below are the basic instructions on how to get started for either sound.

First, you position the tip of your tongue behind the top of your front teeth. This ensures that when you go to pronounce this, you’ll have generate the friction necessary for proper enunciation. Keep your lips relaxed.

An Alternative Method


There’s also a second way to pronouncing this sound. In this method,  you’ll position the tip of your tongue between your top and bottom front teeth. If you find yourself using this method, you may also discover it makes it difficult to shift quickly to other sounds.

The reason for this is that your tongue needs to be so far in front when its placed between your upper and lower front teeth. You may not consider this much of a distance, but your tongue doesn’t have quite the agility to move swiftly, either.


Consider this: Continuous Consonants


The other hint that is helpful in learning to pronounce either the voiced or unvoiced “th” sound is that they are what is known as “continuous consonants.” This means that you should, under ideal conditions, be able to hold these sounds for a few seconds. Not only should you be able to hold them, but do so with in an even and smooth enunciation for the entire time. No pressure here, right?

The second aspect of these sounds are they’re known as “fricatives,” which means most of the sound is derived from the friction produced from the air traveling through that small opening in the vocal tract.

Now that we’ve have the technicalities of pronouncing these words correctly, it’s time to show you the subtle difference between the sounds of the voiced and unvoiced “th.”


The Good News about the “the” Sound


After everything you’ve learned about the “voiced” and “unvoiced” “th” sound, you may be a bit surprised to learn that there is even a spark of good news out there about it. Believe it or not, it’s considered one of the most consistent sounds in the English language.


When you see the combination of letters together you can be sure that they are almost always pronounce it the same way. But English being what it is, does contain its exceptions in this sound as well. Consider, for example, the words, Thailand, Thomas and Thames all of which you’ll pronounce with a “t” sound.


You’ll also find that on occasion that the “th” is really a cluster of two consonants and you’ll pronounce the “t” and “h” separately. This occurs most notably in compound words. Some of these include anthill, lightheaded, lighthouse and knighthood.


Examples of Voiced “th” Sounds


Here are few examples of the voiced “th” sounds. The voiced option can appear in any part of a word, the front, the middle or the end. I realize that makes it more difficult to recognize. In order to hear the difference and the proper pronunciation, as a native speaker to read these words to you: that, than they, though, themselves, therefore, therein, feather, together, bathing, father, mothing, clothing, weather, another, rather, soothing, tether, breathe, lathe. Seethe, loathe.


Just as with the voiced “th” sound, the unvoiced alternative can and does show up in any part of a word. The following is a list – of course, not complete – of the unvoiced “th” sound. Listen closely to a native speaker say these. Then try to imitate him or her as closely as you can.


They include: thorn, thin, think, thousand, thirsty, thief, thermometer, thaw, thread, thoughtful, three, thick, therapy, thimble, Thursday, bathtub, toothache, toothbrush, toothpaste, toothpick, marathon, python, healthy, truthful, wealthy, athlete, birthday, pathway, cloth, math, math, tooth, month, fifth, path, beneath, path, wreathe, broth, booth


Are You Making any of these Errors?


If the “th” sound is new to you, it may take some practice for you to learn the proper placement of your mouth, as well as listening to the correct sound. The good news is that while this is a difficult sound, there are a few ways that it’s sometimes pronounced by non-native speakers. If you can identify one of these ways, then you may find it easier to correct and even perfect your pronunciation.


For the most part, those who speak English as a second language stay within the appropriate sound category. They substitute the voiceless “t” or “s” sounds for the voiceless “th.” Similarly, they use the voiced “d” and “z” sounds for the voiced “th.” Here are just a few ways these can manifest in your accent.


Many individuals end up saying “mouse” when they’re trying to pronounce “mouth.” They say the word “tree” for the word “three.” They say “sink” for “think” and “bat” for “bath.” You’ll also hear the word “dare” for “there” and “ladder” for “lather.”


If this sounds like you, then you’re probably already working on this area. Don’t be too upset if the pronunciation doesn’t click with you immediately. Work on this area consistently and persistently. You’ll be pleasantly pleased – and mildly proud – at how quickly you’ll pick it up.


In the meantime, we’ll talk about another portion of the English language which may be giving you a difficult time: diphthongs. Don’t know what they are? You’re not alone. In the next time, you’ll discover what they are and how you can use them to speak like a native.