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Chronos
10-25-2011, 01:11 AM
As everyone knows, the digraph "th" has two different pronunciations in English: There's the unvoiced sound, found in "thing" and "wrath" and "mathematics", etc., and there's the voiced sound, found in "the" and "smooth" and "mother", etc.

Both of them can show up at the beginning of a word, and both of them can show up in the middle or end of a word. But it seems like the only places the voiced TH shows up at the beginning of a word is in "little words": Article, pronouns, and prepositions. I can't think of a single noun, verb, adjective, or adverb that starts with a voiced TH.

Are there any? And if not, what's the reason for this? It seems like it should be a perfectly familiar and usable phoneme-- It's not like initial MB, or something, that's completely foreign to English speakers. Why is it so restricted?

TriPolar
10-25-2011, 01:41 AM
There probably aren't any like that. Like many small words in English, these have a Germanic origin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_th#Germanic_origins).

I've found very few Americans or people learning English as a second language even grasp this concept. I can't recall anything else I learned from Mrs. Watson in fourth grade except this, and the story of her chance encounter with the Beatles.

(mostly) Harmless
10-25-2011, 01:41 AM
I remember wondering about this myself. I pondered it for a while and thought that perhaps they are the same phoneme in complementary distribution. If I recall correctly a professor showed me the minimal pairs: thigh/thy and ether/either which prove that they are distinct.

All that was to say that 1. I don't know of any 'long words' as you would put it that start with the voiced dental fricative (although I hope someone comes along to prove me the fool on this one) and 2. This is probably due to the historical distribution of these phonemes and the possibility that they may have been a single phoneme in older varieties of English.

Wendell Wagner
10-25-2011, 06:07 AM
This has already been linked to, but let me say once again that you should read the entire Wikipedia entry on "th" in English:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_th

Let's just say that the history of the distribution of the various pronunciations of this phoneme are very complicated.

Chronos
10-25-2011, 08:07 PM
OK, I've finally had a chance to read over that Wikipedia article (it hadn't even occurred to me that there would be a Wiki article on this). It looks like the most relevant section is not the part about Germanic origins (after all, oodles of words have Germanic origins, not just the function words), but the part on Development up to Modern English (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_th#Development_up_to_Modern_English). Still, they only seem to have a single bullet-point on it, and with a fair bit of uncertainty:
In early Middle English times, a group of very common function words beginning with /θ/ (the, they, there, etc.) came to be pronounced with // instead of /θ/. Possibly this was a sandhi development; as these words are frequently found in unstressed positions they can sometimes appear to run on from the preceding word, which may have resulted in the dental fricative being treated as though it were word-internal.

TriPolar
10-25-2011, 10:12 PM
The page on the voiceless dental fricative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_dental_fricative) states:


The sound is known to have disappeared from a number of languages, e.g. from most of the Germanic languages or dialects, where it is retained only in English and Icelandic.


So these words are survivors for some reason. There may have been some need to use the unusual sound as a means of stressing these words.

TriPolar
10-25-2011, 10:29 PM
Got cut off with that previous post a mess. I should have been looking at voiced dental fricative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_dental_fricative). But that doesn't add any useful information.

I'm trying to see if the liitle words are survivors of a mass change. From the original page it looks like the differentiation started in West Germanic form, which carried into Old English and disappeared in German and Dutch. It also has this second bullet:


English has borrowed many words from Greek, including a vast number of scientific terms. Where the original Greek had the letter ⟨θ⟩ (theta), English retained the Late Greek pronunciation /θ/, regardless of phonetic environment (thermometer, methyl, etc.). In a few words of Indian origin, such as thug, ⟨th⟩ represents Sanskrit थ (/tʰ/) or ठ (/ʈʰ/), usually pronounced /θ/ (but occasionally /t/) in English.

Which just tells me there was a mess of pronunciations, but these little words needed a special stress on their pronunciation. Yet German and Dutch managed to get rid of the distinction altogether.

Tom Tildrum
10-26-2011, 10:32 AM
I can't think of a single noun, verb, adjective, or adverb that starts with a voiced TH.

"There," "thither," and "thus" can be adverbs, but I don't think that detracts from the OP. They're more like exceptions that prove the rule.

psychonaut
10-26-2011, 05:13 PM
"There," "thither," and "thus" can be adverbs, but I don't think that detracts from the OP. They're more like exceptions that prove the rule.Also dozens of other adverbs formed by compounding "there", "then", and "thence": "thereabout", "thenabout", "thenceforth", "thenceforward", "thereafter", "thereagainst", "thereamong", "therefor", "therefrom", "thereinafter", "therein", "thereon", "thereof", "therewith", etc.

capybara
10-26-2011, 10:04 PM
Thunder? Thain? Theme?

TriPolar
10-26-2011, 10:33 PM
Thunder? Thain? Theme?

Wrong TH. What's thain?

panache45
10-26-2011, 11:28 PM
Thunder? Thain? Theme?

I think you're mithing the point.

Randy Seltzer
10-26-2011, 11:28 PM
I opened this thread assuming it was another argument about whether there's a difference between the voiced and unvoiced dental fricative. (Spoiler: there is). I had never considered the scarcity of English words beginning with the voiced variety.

So I just thumbed through the entire "th" section of my dictionary. I pronounced every word in my head and didn't encounter a single one that fits the spirit of the OP (many adverbs as pointed out by Tom Tildrum and psychonaut but no "big" words per the OP). Color me stunned.

If anyone else wants to try it, just look for this symbol [] instead of this one [θ]. Good luck.

pulykamell
10-26-2011, 11:33 PM
I opened this thread assuming it was another argument about whether there's a difference between the voiced and unvoiced dental fricative. (Spoiler: there is)

This is an argument? The difference between "thistle" and "this'll" (as in the contraction of "this will") should settle that for most, if not all, English dialects.

Chronos
10-26-2011, 11:53 PM
As an aside, the character for that sound (the one that looks like a partial derivative with a crossbar) is called "eth", right?

Randy Seltzer
10-27-2011, 12:16 AM
This is an argument? The difference between "thistle" and "this'll" (as in the contraction of "this will") should settle that for most, if not all, English dialects.I'm not going to search for it, but I've seen at least one thread where somebody will insist there's no difference, and everyone comes in with examples, and the person will obstinately refuse to hear the sounds coming out of his own mouth: "Yes, I'm saying them out loud, but I swear they're all the same... ether, either, thigh, thy... you guys are all crazy."
As an aside, the character for that sound (the one that looks like a partial derivative with a crossbar) is called "eth", right? It would appear so. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eth)

Farmer Jane
10-27-2011, 12:24 AM
These, those, thy, this, that, they, them, there. My tongue is starting to hurt just thinking about it. I sat for awhile trying to figure out a bigger word with your 'th' and I came up with nothing.

psychonaut
10-27-2011, 03:37 AM
The Carnegie Mellon Pronouncing Dictionary (http://www.speech.cs.cmu.edu/cgi-bin/cmudict) lists the following 57 //-initial words:than
thao
that
that'd
that'll
that's
that've
thau
the
thee
their
theirs
theirself
theirselves
theis
them
themself
themselves
then
thence
thenceforth
there
there'd
there'll
there're
there's
there've
thereabouts
thereafter
thereby
therefore
therein
thereof
thereon
thereupon
these
thesing
theus
they
they'd
they'll
they're
they've
thine
this
this'll
tho
thomann
those
thou
though
thous
thur
thus
thusfar
thusly
thyI think some of the entries are erroneous; the OED, for example, does not contain "thomann" or "thesing", either as a headword or in the text of any other entry. The remainder appear to be exclusively adverbs and closed-class words such as determiners and pronouns.

JKellyMap
10-27-2011, 04:49 AM
I'm not going to search for it, but I've seen at least one thread where somebody will insist there's no difference, and everyone comes in with examples, and the person will obstinately refuse to hear the sounds coming out of his own mouth: "Yes, I'm saying them out loud, but I swear they're all the same... ether, either, thigh, thy... you guys are all crazy."
It would appear so. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eth)

I don't mean to sound snooty -- heaven knows there are many, many Dopers who are much more linguistically informed than I am -- but I think you are observing that there are basically two kinds of language threads on the SDMB: those mostly involving posters who have some basic understanding of language (or the more specific topic at hand, like grammar or phonetics or Proto-Indo-European), and those mostly involving posters who happen to lack such background or knowledge.

This thread happens to be dominated by the former, while you are quoting an example of the latter, it seems.

JKellyMap
10-27-2011, 05:14 AM
I'll add that the reason for the two types of language threads (a clearer division than, say, threads about calculus, or skydiving), is that ALL of us talk and write in at least one language, so we all come to the subject with plenty of "experience" and some degree of interest, yet only a subset of us happens to have (for example) learned about what phonemes are, and then practiced observing closely the sounds we make when we speak, regardless of spelling.

Malacandra
10-27-2011, 06:40 AM
Wrong TH. What's thain?

Probably Thane (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/thane) or thegn, although Tolkien spelled it "Thain" when talking about the nominal "boss hobbit".

"...[Pippin's father, the eldest Took] said that if anyone was going to play the chief at this time of day, it would be the right Thain of the Shire and no upstart."

Acsenray
10-27-2011, 08:59 AM
So these words are survivors for some reason.

Looking for "a reason" is usually the wrong path in this waters.

vejk
10-27-2011, 09:33 AM
I've found very few Americans or people learning English as a second language even grasp this concept. I can't recall anything else I learned from Mrs. Watson in fourth grade except this, and the story of her chance encounter with the Beatles.

Are you saying people in the US don't pronounce the difference between voiced and unvoiced 'th'? I don't think that's true.

Polycarp
10-27-2011, 09:59 AM
Noting that the longer forms in psychonaut's list are compounds (thereupon, themselves), I'd suggest that the reason most of the longer th- words in English begin with unvoiced th is that they were borrowed from Greek, either directly, as coinages, or via Latin, and initially began with theta, unvoiced th. Classic Greek did not have a voiced th phoneme, though in modern Greek delta has that sound. The Germanic/Scandinavian words tended to be short; the Greco-Latin ones a mix and more commonly long. So most longer th- words ended up with unvoiced th.

bordelond
10-27-2011, 11:03 AM
OK, I've finally had a chance to read over that Wikipedia article (it hadn't even occurred to me that there would be a Wiki article on this). It looks like the most relevant section is not the part about Germanic origins (after all, oodles of words have Germanic origins, not just the function words), but the part on Development up to Modern English (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_th#Development_up_to_Modern_English). Still, they only seem to have a single bullet-point on it, and with a fair bit of uncertainty:
In early Middle English times, a group of very common function words beginning with /θ/ (the, they, there, etc.) came to be pronounced with // instead of /θ/. Possibly this was a sandhi development; as these words are frequently found in unstressed positions they can sometimes appear to run on from the preceding word, which may have resulted in the dental fricative being treated as though it were word-internal.

Odd phrasing in the Wikipedia article -- my understanding is that the part in red (above) is unequivocally what happened.

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