5

My native language lacks dental fricatives, as does the variety of English commonly spoken in my country ("Dis is a ting."). Within a month or so I have to learn how to speak in a way that's intelligible to native British speakers. I'm finding considerable difficulty pronouncing the -ths sound in "maths", the -ths sound in "baths" and the "-dths" sound in "hundredths". The closest I got is "mafs", "barvs" or "bars", and "hundretts", respectively. I'm able to say "math" (the way Americans say it) without a problem, but I suspect it would sound odd in Britain.

"Sixths" lies beyond my abilities altogether.

How can I remedy this issue? Is there a compromise sound I can substitute, say "f" or "v" for the voiceless/voiced dental fricative respectively, without being laughed at?

  • 2
    Especially about "sixths". Some people probably can pronounce it, but (in the US, anyway), hardly anybody does. We just extend the final little hiss of the "x" an extra couple sixths of a second, and it comes out as "six...s", and that's good enough. Also, I have definitely known native US English speakers who pronounce it "baffroom". It looks funny if you write it, but when you hear it, you barely notice. – Lorel C. Jul 26 at 19:33
  • 5
    For the record, I've been speaking English all my life, and hundredths is still a word that's a bit challenge to enunciate clearly. – J.R. Jul 26 at 19:33
  • I just wanted to comment and say don't panic! No one will laugh because you say "mafs" or "barvs" or anything else. My boyfriend has a lisp and can't even say my name (it has a th in the middle), we did a maths degree together and he couldn't say that. "Free" and "three" sound exactly the same from him, but honestly no one notices. There are so many dialects in the UK that your pronunciation will just get swallowed up or put down as where you were taught. – Bee Jul 31 at 16:51
8

You are worrying needlessly. Not everyone in Britain talks like the BBC or the Queen. In particular, dental fricatives are often replaced by labiodental fricatives in so-called Estuary English, the accent of much of South-east England. Maffs, barf, hundredfs are how many Estuary speakers would say 'maths', 'baths', and 'hundredths', strikingly so in Essex. The district of Thanet in Kent is called "Fannit" by many of its natives, and is sometimes jocularly called "Plannit Fannit" (Planet Thanet). I would pick an 'f' sound. Many natives cannot easily say 'sixths' in a 'standard' way. You need to understand that Britain is a very diverse country. It's not like in the movies. There are very many different accents and ways of speaking. There is a strong ethos of tolerance and acceptance of different ways of speaking. Maybe your anxieties about language are because of a rapidly approaching move. Relax.

Estuary

  • Hope so. Would saying "maffs" outside the South-East sound weird? – user2607 Jul 26 at 20:10
  • 1
    You would get away with 'maffs' but do note that in the UK that subject is a plural, as it is not in the US. – JeremyC Jul 26 at 21:28
  • 1
    @user2607 - You wouldn't want to say "maffs" intentionally, but, if that's how it came out when you tried to say the word, most would be pretty understanding, and it won't be the first time we've heard it said that way. – J.R. Jul 26 at 22:12
  • Are there any exercises I could do, then? My field is maths, so it's not like I can avoid saying it. – user2607 Jul 27 at 5:42
  • @user2607 stick your tongue out on the "th" and then say a short 's', but still don't worry. (Also I am having a hard time explaining with demonstrating to you) My field is maths too and it's one of the more diverse subjects. As I mentioned in my comment on the main post, by boyfriend (BrE 25 years) can't say it either and we both studies it. – Bee Jul 31 at 16:55
3

Most teachers will suggest you practice and it will come, while not being too worried in ordinary conversation. "Dat ting" (for "that thing") is perfectly well understood in general, and in particular, if that's the "common mispronunciation" of speakers where you come from, native speakers will be quite used to it and usually understand very well.

My suggestion for practice would be

It's very important you do it slowly and correctly. The usual problem is that learners try to do it too quickly without ever being sure they're doing it correctly. Correctness comes from learning slowly, speed comes with practice.

Remember when listening that many native speakers will not pronounce some of your examples correctly, especially when speaking quickly. In particular, many will drop the ending of "sixths" and "three-sixths" is barely distinguishable from "three-six". If maths is your subject, however, it's probably best if you can master them.

How to get by

If you can't say "maths" and be understood because they think you're saying "mass", "mats" or whatever, say "mathematics" which will be understood whatever sound you make for "th".

If you can't make "three-sixths" sound right, add an "e": "three-sixthes", even "three-sixethes", "hundredthes" etc. It's not elegant, but it will work! (It's a very common "mistake" to insert extra vowels, especially for native Italian and Japanese speakers.) Or explain with "three over six" which every numerate person will immediately understand.

Other pronunciations

As well as the other excellent answer about Estuary English ...

Many speakers don't make /θ/ and /ð/ and are perfectly well understood.

  • Many French speakers of English use S and Z sounds ("Za sing")
  • Many West Indian native speakers use T and D sounds ("Dat ting")
  • Many Estuary native speakers use F and V sounds ("va fing")
  • Sometimes the sounds are dropped or replaced by glottal stops (even harder for non-natives to say)
  • Yeah +1 Inserting e sound between works well imo. – Kentaro Jul 27 at 10:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.