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One of the things that were very unnatural for me while learning English was the "th" sound. Do all native English speakers actually pronounce it this way or does it vary between accents (Canadian, US, Australian, UK islands)? Does it actually stand out if I pronunce it as "f"?

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    Not everyone manages or wants to do it all the time. That's how new colloquial sentences have emerged, like "True dat!" for instance. i have never heard or seen it pronounced "f" though (imagine "True fat!"). – MorganFR Dec 14 '16 at 14:53
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    It does happen sometimes, and it also depends on which part of America or the world in general, as they pronounce a lot of things differently. As for the "f" sound it happens, but not at the beginning of the word, consider "birfday". – MorganFR Dec 14 '16 at 14:57
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    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th-fronting. In the UK it is often considered a sign of "poor education" and sometimes used to caricature somebody who has "never learnt to speak proper like, innit". Europeans whose native language doesn't include the "th" sound tend to pronounce it as "z," not "f", which sounds "foreign" (a conventional caricature of a French person speaking English is to replace "the" by "zee") but "z" doesn't carry the implication of "stupid" which "f" does. – alephzero Dec 14 '16 at 18:28
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    We have two 'th' sounds, voiced and voiceless. – snailcar Dec 14 '16 at 20:26
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    @Agent Right, there are more than two spelling-to-sound correspondences for the 'th' sequence. However, there are only two sounds in question here. – snailcar Dec 15 '16 at 15:43
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Most native English speakers you hear will effortlessly pronounce the th digraph you're having trouble with. While there are some dialects of English that pronounce it /d/ or /t/ or /f/ depending on position, standard pronunciations in the US and UK pronounce it "normally" and that is what you should strive to emulate if you want to sound like a native speaker.

There are phonemes in every language that non-native speakers have trouble with, and English is no exception. This is the advantage of growing up speaking a language from childhood. And by this I mean from very early childhood, what most people would consider the pre-verbal period of a baby's life.

9-month-old babies are aware of the phonemes in their own language as they start to use both prosodic and phonotactic cues to discriminate individual speech sounds of their language

Some studies have shown that unless a baby hears its language's phonemes in its first six months of life, it may never code for them at all.

The point is, yes, it's hard to duplicate certain sounds in another language. You may never pronounce those sounds perfectly. But unless you make the effort, your pronunciation will always mark you as foreign* and, worse, you may have trouble communicating with native speakers.

Addendum

In response to a comment I'm including further information about the critical nature of language exposure in the early months of life:

At birth, infants are prepared to learn any language. For example, an American baby adopted by an Inuit-speaking Eskimo family would grow up speaking fluent Inuktitut and have no trouble saying words such as qikturiaqtauniq ("mosquito bite"). However, even before their first birthdays, babies begin to lose the ability to hear the distinctions among phonemes in languages other than their own. By around the age of six months, babies have already begun to hear the sounds of their own language in the same way that adult speakers do, as Patricia Kuhl and her associates (1992) have shown in their research.

It's worth noting that they say babies before their first birthdays are beginning to lose "the ability to hear the distinctions among phoneme in languages other than their own." Not that they've lost it, but that the longer a child goes without hearing those distinctions and, consequently, producing them itself, the harder it will be for that child to reproduce all the language's sounds. By the time one reaches adulthood, it can be a monumental task.

Anecdotally, my own name, which is Germanic and contains the ü sound in German, is extremely difficult for me to pronounce fluently; and a word like Brüder, with its combination of the glottal /r/ immediately followed by the ü, is well-nigh impossible for me—even though I worked in Germany for a time and acquired a fair bit of fluency. It was always a source of chagrin for me, especially when I would hear my coworkers pronounce my name flawlessly and without effort.

* And in case you think that it's all right to use those non-standard sounds produced by dialectical speakers, be aware that even to sound like them you would have to master the whole range of their pronunciations as well, and be able to use those when appropriate, which would be just as big a task (if not bigger) as learning the standard version.

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    I'm curious about "some studies". My oldest daughter heard English for the first time when she was four years old. Two years later she had no foreign accent in her English, and even though she spoke Spanish at home and school was in French, her mother tongue is definitely English, where she is indistinguishable from a native speaker (I would actually say that she is a native speaker). And, I don't see any evidence that she has any particular talent for languages. – Martin Argerami Dec 15 '16 at 8:30
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    @MartinArgerami the statement was about phonemes, not languages. I think off the top of my head that between them, French and Spanish have all the phonemes English does. Now, try and get a child who hears only French and Spanish for the first two years to speak a click language as if it were their mother tongue, and you might have a bit more trouble... – AakashM Dec 15 '16 at 10:02
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    @AakashM: I moved to an English-speaking country as an adult. 15 years ago. I can definitely tell you that many English phonemes are different from Spanish and/or French. My kids find it really funny how hard it is for me and my wife, even as we are fluent, to pronounce/distinguish some English vowels and consonants (example: the difference in pronunciation between "ice" and "eyes" will always be a mistery to me, even if they have tried to teach me many times); my daughter who first heard English at age 4 has none of those problems. – Martin Argerami Dec 15 '16 at 10:30
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    @MartinArgerami - Age four is definitely young enough to be within the critical window for language acquisition. Look at Henry Kissinger for a great example - he was 15 when his family moved to the US, and while he speaks English fluently, he still has a thick German accent, while his younger brother doesn't have an accent. (Although apparently his brother jokes, "That's because, unlike Henry, I listen to other people.") – stangdon Dec 15 '16 at 15:16
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    @stangdon: I concur completely. I would push that age to even around 10 years old, and even a couple more for some kids. My comments arose in relation to the "studies" mentioned in the answer that quote 6 months as the critical age. – Martin Argerami Dec 15 '16 at 15:18
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All "standard" accents maintain the sounds /θ/ and /ð/

It will definitely stand out if you can't pronounce the "th" sounds (there are two, the voiceless version /θ/ and the voiced version /ð/). For adult native English speakers with a standard accent, it comes completely naturally and it doesn't take any special effort to pronounce these sounds. A non-native speaker aiming to speak without a strong accent definitely needs to learn how to pronounce these sounds. However, it won't generally destroy your comprehensibility if you replace them with other sounds.

There are some native accents where these sounds are replaced by others, and English speakers are also familiar with non-native speakers replacing these sounds.

The most common replacements for /θ/

The most common native English replacements are turning the fricatives into stops (/θ/ to /t/ , and /ð/ to /d/) or fronting them to a labiodental position (/θ/ to /f/, and /ð/ to /v/).

For /θ/, fronting to /f/ is probably the most common replacement among native speakers, although it is still not that common. It occurs in Cockney and certain other (mainly viewed as lower-class) British accents. According to Wikipedia, if I'm reading it correctly, in African American Vernacular English it usually occurs only in non-word-initial positions. So an example of this would be "bath" pronounced as "baf", or for a Cockney speaker, "thing" pronounced as "fing". I believe this substitution also occurs fairly frequently in children's speech.

Stopping of /θ/ to /t/ seems to occur somewhat sporadically in native English accents, but it is still a fairly familiar sound change and it wouldn't be surprising to hear e.g. "ting" for "thing" from a non-native speaker. It does contribute a lot to the perception of an accent as foreign, though, and it might cause some confusion with certain homophones (e.g. "bath" and "bat", in American English).

Replacement of /θ/ with /s/ is also known, although as far as I know it occurs exclusively in foreign accents.

The most common replacements for /ð/

For word-initial /ð/, the most common pronunciation in accents without a separate /ð/ phoneme is probably with a stop /d/. I.e. "that" is pronounced like "dat", "the" is pronounced as "da", "this" is pronounced as "dis". The pronunciations with /d/ are generally stigmatized, so it will stand out if you use them and it might sound silly, like you are putting on an accent that isn't associated with your linguistic background. In America, stopping word-initial /ð/ to /d/ is associated in particular with African American Vernacular English.

However, note that even in accents with a distinct phoneme /ð/ that can occur word-initially, this sound is frequently subject to some degree of phonetic assimilation: when it comes directly after another consonant, it tends to be pronounced differently depending on what the preceding consonant is. After a nasal consonant like "n", it may become nasal (e.g. in sequences such as "in the"); after a stop or affricate, it may become more like a stop or affricate (for more information like this, see "The stop-like modification of /ð/: A case study in the analysis and handling of speech variation", by Sherry Y. Zhao, 2007).You probably never have to aim to produce assimilated forms, but you should be able to recognize them from native speakers.

Another possible replacement for /ð/ is the sound /v/ in some accents (e.g. "brother" = "bruvver", "another" = "anuvver"). This is the same kind of "fronting" as the replacement of /θ/ with /f/, and these phenomena seem to often go together. Fronting of /ð/ to /v/ is associated with Cockney and certain other (mainly viewed as lower-class) British accents. I had the impression that it occured word-medially but not word-initially, but a comment by AkashM indicates that it can occur even at the start of a word:

plenty of the speakers that have it medially also have it initially (source: personal experience). "there's no way" -> "vere's no way", "the main thing is" -> "ve main fing is". – AakashM

It is generally understandable to speakers of other accents, but it definitely stands out and is associated with particular regional varieties of speech.

Replacing /ð/ with /z/ will probably be understood, but it definitely sounds foreign. (E.g. pronouncing "this" as "zis", "that" as "zat", "other" as "uzzer".) I don't know of any native English accent that has this. Using /z/ in place of /ð/ is a standard feature of a stereotypical strong French accent.

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    " It doesn't occur word-initially" - plenty of the speakers that have it medially also have it initially (source: personal experience). "there's no way" -> "vere's no way", "the main thing is" -> "ve main fing is". – AakashM Dec 15 '16 at 10:04
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    The dialect I grew up with, Yorkshire, replaces "th" by "t" in certain constellations. Most Brits would expect Yorkshire folk to say "t'pub" for "the pub", for example. In fact among ourselves the "t" itself is often replaced by a glottal stop. – RedSonja Dec 15 '16 at 12:48
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    @RedSonja I've never heard it not replaced by a glottal stop. How else is "t' pub" pronounced? Especially in something like "Have you seen the pub?" rather than "I'm going to the pub" where the "t" of "to" is pronounced and everything between there and "pub" elided into a glo'al stop. Indeed, my experience is that even something like "at the pub" turns into "a' [glottal stop] pub". – David Richerby Dec 16 '16 at 10:25
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    @NickT: No, as David Richerby says, it's normally pronounced more like [ʔpəb] in one syllable. It just means "the pub". "To the pub" would be "to t'pub" [təʔpəb]. – sumelic Dec 17 '16 at 19:34
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    I had never considered that before - but, yes; there is an initial glottal stop to differentiate “Pubs are closing” from “The pubs are closing” Very slight, but it is there. [Though we'd say shutting rather than closing]. Maybe it ought to be called a glottal start?? ;) – Tetsujin Dec 18 '16 at 13:03
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There is African-American Vernacular English. The th sound appears to be used more rarely (if ever):

When occurring in the beginning of a word, the th- sound is pronounced as a d- sound.

example: this, they, that --> dis, dey, dat

Within a word, -th (unvoiced) is frequently pronounced as an f sound. This also occurs at the end of the word in certain environments.

example: nothing, author --> nuffin, ahfuh

The voiced -th may be voiced as a v sound.

example: brother --> bruvah

Linguistic Features of AAVE

Of course, speakers of AAVE can also speak with a General American accent, which would include the th sound.


As hatchet points out, Cajun English is another example:

Voiceless and voiced /th/ replacements occur frequently in the speech of non-standard speakers, and the Cajuns are no exception. In fact, the replacement of the /th/ sounds with a /t/ or a /d/ sound is another source of the numerous jokes and imitations of Cajun speech made by others (and sometimes by Cajuns themselves, as in the “Cajun Night Before Christmas” recording made by Jules D’Hemecourt). Although many southern English and African American English speakers use an /f/ or a /v/ in place of the /th/ phonemes, both Creole and Cajun English speakers use the voiceless and voiced alveolar stops /t/ and /d/. Many bilingual French-Canadians exhibit this same linguistic behavior with regard to the /th/ phonemes, while standard French speakers tend to use an /s/ or a /z/ in pace of a “th” sound.

PBS: Cajun English

This quote also shows you that southern English is similar to AAVE, while Creole and French-Canadian English are similar to Cajun English with how they pronounce th.


I wouldn't recommend switching to a nonstandard dialect, though. Just bite the bullet and learn how to pronounce th.

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The standard accent for Irish native speakers of English does not use /θ/ and /ð/. In novels Irish people are often depicted as invariably replacing /θ/ and /ð/ by /t/ and /d/, but that is described as a misconception in this account of the phonology of Irish English produced by the University of Duisburg-Essen. Under the heading "Misconceptions about Irish English", it says,

1) The Irish pronounce the th in thinker like the t in tinker.

This is generally untrue. In non-vernacular speech in the south of Ireland a strict distinction is maintained between a dental [ṯ] (as in Swedish tala ‘speak’ or Italian notte ‘night’) and an alveolar [t] (as in English tall or not) so that the words thin and tin are not homophones. The Irish are very sensitive to the shift from dental to alveolar stop and they regard the use of the latter in the THIN lexical set as a sign of strongly vernacular speech.

In northern Ireland the ambi-dental fricatives of more standard English are found so that thanks is [θæŋks]. This fricative is sometimes found as a spelling pronunciation with southern speakers in word-final position.

I think it is fair to say that middle class standard Irish English replaces /θ/ and /ð/ with voiceless and voiced dental stops, /t̪/ and /d̪/, but most sorts of working class Irish English, in addition to some regional dialects irrespective of social class, replace them with the equivalent pair of alveolar stops, /t/ and /d/.

This broadly agrees with the Wikipedia account of the consonants of Hiberno-English.

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I have heard Newfoundlanders in Canada replace the "th" sound with "t" as "tree" instead of "three" or "Tursday" instead of "Thursday."

But to help you learn to pronounce it properly, I am ESL teacher and I often used the attached image to help my students learn the correct placement of the teeth and tongue. Look at the image while saying "th" words. Use a mirror to practice correct placement. It may seem silly but this really helped my students!

enter image description here

  • Another example: some Newfoundland (and Cape Breton) accents do the same thing that [@RedSonja mentioned for Yorkshire accents]: "going to t'store" replaces "going to the store". (I live in Halifax NS, and have encountered some pretty thick Cape Breton accents). – Peter Cordes Dec 15 '16 at 15:13
  • @PeterCordes No Yorkshireman would call a shop a store. :-) Although it's spelled "t' ", it's really just a glottal stop which, in "to t' " gets merged into the "to", giving something like "going t# shop", where the # denotes the glottal stop. Also, this is specific to the word "the"; other instances of "th" are pronounced more or less as normal. – David Richerby Dec 16 '16 at 10:19
  • @DavidRicherby: According to RedSonja, Yorkshiremen go to the pub :) My example was what I've heard Cape Bretoners say when I was a teenager going to speed skating meets and training camps. And yes, for "the" in Newfoundland / Cape Breton, it is also a glottal stop. I had noticed this interesting pronunciation and once tried but failed miserably to explain this part of the accent to friends that didn't know it. I tried to say "t'store" the way I'd heard it, but could never get anything to come out of my mouth that sounded like what I'd heard. I was missing the glottal stop. – Peter Cordes Dec 16 '16 at 14:19
  • Unfortunately, the picture is pretty useless: just try speaking "this" from the above initial position. The best I could get was "th—s". – firegurafiku Dec 17 '16 at 23:27
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As the other answers state, yes, the majority of native English speakers do/can pronounce the "th" sound (be it as in "the" or "three").

Though this isn't the case from the word go. Children who are learning to talk will usually pronounce "three" as "free" and pronounce "the" with sounds they find easier to make (until they are able to make "th") such as "da", "va" and "za".

As another answerer mentioned, African-American vernacular is often distinctive by its replacement of "th" with "d-". However, that is not due to an inability to make the "th" sound.

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