Dental fricatives

Continuing yesterday’s theme of sounds that can be challenging to pronounce, today we look at the voiceless dental fricative /θ/. This sound is usually written th in English and appears in such words as three [θriː], thought [θɔːt] and thin [θɪn]. In the Spanish of Spain it’s written c (when followed by i or e), as in cien [θien], and z, as in Zaragoza [θaragoθa]. It’s also used in a number of other languages, including Greek – the Greek letter θ (Θήτα/theta) represents this sound in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).

The voiced version of this sound is represented in the IPA by the letter ð (eth), which comes from Old English. This sound is written th in English and appears in the [ðə] and though [ðoʊ]. In Welsh it’s written dd; in Icelandic ð; in Albanian, Cornish and Swahili dh, and in Greek δ (Δέλτα/delta). In Spanish d can be pronounced /ð/ when it comes between two vowels, as in nada [‘naða].

These sounds are fairly rare among the world’s languages and can be tricky for speakers of languages which don’t use them. They also tend to be the last sounds acquired by native speakers of English, according to this page.

There’s an explanation of how to pronounce the voiceless dental fricative here. You do the same and just let vocal folds vibrate to pronounce the voiced version.

I didn’t learn how to pronounce the voiceless dental fricative properly until the age of 23, when a Taiwanese friend who was studying English at university explained it to me. Before that, I wasn’t aware that there was a difference between three and free – I pronounced both with /f/ at the beginning. I still have to make a conscious effort to pronounce this sound sometimes and tend to slip back to the /f/ sound when not concentrating.

I often pronounce the voiced dental fricative as /v/ when it’s not at the beginning of a word, for example in brother. However, since starting to learn Welsh, which makes quite a lot of use of dental fricatives, my ability to pronounce them has improved. Combinations of /ð/ and /v/ can also trip me up, as in swyddfa [sʊɨðva].

15 thoughts on “Dental fricatives

  1. In Hiberno-English the /ð/ and /θ/ are very much missing, especially in my idolect.

    Therefore for me and are pronounced /tɪn/ and /dɛ/. I make the difference between ‘bath’ and ‘bat’ by lengthening the vowel in the former, so: /ba:t/ and /bat/.

    I don’t make a difference between ‘three’ and ‘tree’. My foreigner house mates always used to get a laugh out of asking me to say: ‘thirty-three and a third’.

  2. Hehe, I’ve encountered more British people (I even know a Dutch person doing this when speaking English) pronouncing /θ/ as /v/. Personally I find it annoying, but maybe that’s because I’m so used to /θ/.

  3. Ever try a bidental fricative? My neighbor’s kid makes those all the time, but he also wears a football helmet a lot too.

  4. My students only have problems pronouncing this when they’re not trying. The moment I show them and say “stick your tongue out” they all seem to be able to do it immediately.

    But then they’ll slip back into their old habits of making s instead.

    But this can actually be confusing, because sometimes they’ll say “I sink”, or “that’s what I sought” instead of “I think” and “that’s what I thought”.

  5. I figured it was a joke, especially since my brother and I joke about wanting subtitles when British Islanders speak. This post makes clear some of the pronunciation differences that I had never even thought twice about.

    “DL on 21 Mar 2008 at 7:38 pm #

    @ James

    What do you mean by, “I can normally understand American from my English.”?

    James on 21 Mar 2008 at 9:12 pm #

    It´s a joke. I used to live there, I am employed in the USA. Most of my friends are from the USA.

    Why does one always have to explain this?”

  6. no idea what that last quote of me is about.

    My brother never used to be able to make the distinction between free and three. We teased him all the time. He does speak mumble language though. However, several years of living in Africa have improved him, though I still find him hard to understand. He also does the “v” thing.

  7. My dialect of English (Californian) is known for having a very pronounced θ and ð; the tongue tip is known to protrude visibly from between the teeth (for most American English speakers, the tongue is placed between the teeth, but it does not protrude)


  8. My eldest daughter, a monoglot 6 six-year old Welsh-speaker, is getting to grips with the difference between ‘dd’ (ð) and ‘f’ (v). Up until now she’s prononced everything with a ‘f’ (v) which is wrong, but sounds very cute in Welsh!

    ‘ff’ and ‘th’ (θ) are two other sounds they mix up – usually pronoucing ‘ff’ instead of θ.

    I was suprised in a way, as people always assume in Welsh that the ‘ll’ or the ‘ch’ would be the most difficult, but none of my children have had difficulties with those sounds.

    It’s always interesting to see a little light-bulb being switched on in the mind of English-speakers when you explain to them that the Welsh ‘dd’ equals the ð sound in ‘that’ and ‘this’. They’ve obviously never realised they were pronouncing two different sounds.

    Many Welsh-speakers, (myself included) when we started to write English would write; ‘Ddy boi widd ddy baic’ (The boy with the bike) or other such spellings as it seems much more logical.

  9. Proto-Germanic had the voiced and unvoiced dental fricatives and most of the subsequent Germanic languages have since lost them over time.

    (Most varieties of) English and Icelandic retain them – do any other Germanic languages or dialects? Does Faeorese still have them (as it is close to Icelandic after all)?

  10. Stuart – Faroese doesn’t have either of the dental fricatives. The Danish d is pronounced /ð/ after vowels, and the Sylt dialect of North Frisian has the same sound, but none of the other Germanic languages, apart from English and Icelandic, have dental fricatives.

  11. I’ve come to notice that substituting “f” for “th” is mainly a practice among the British. One of my friends actually posted a video response on youtube to a girl in London who was embarrassed because she couldn’t pronounce “th”. She’d say “Birfday” “Free” “Fing”…etc.

    I think the American version of this is pronouncing “th” with a lisp.

  12. There’s an odd character for the voiceless version in Icelandic: þ

    Arabic also uses both: voiceless is ث (three dots); voiced is ذ So they also associate the voiceless one with t (same character but two dots) and d (same character, but no dot), respectively.

  13. “There’s an odd character for the voiceless version in Icelandic: þ”

    That letter is called thorn, and was used in English in the Old English and early Middle English period. Norman-French scribes introduced the ‘th’ digraph which finally ousted thorn.

  14. When I first began studying phonetics, [θ] was a sound that mystified me. It made sense at first, but then what is [s̪]? The fact is, [θ] and [ð] are technically interdental fricatives, that is, made between the teeth (as others have noted). True dental fricatives would be [s̪] and [z̪], which really don’t sound much different than their alveolar counterparts.

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