How to pronounce the “th” sound in English

Or, as I like to call it, hunting the wild Eth and Thorn (which are old letters that can be difficult to typesest), because back in the day, English had the two distinct “th” sounds represented differently in their writing system. There was one where you vibrated your vocal folds (that’s called ‘voiced’) which was written as “ð” and one where you didn’t (unvoiced) which was written as “þ”. It’s a bit like the difference between “s” and “z” in English today. Try it: you can say both “s” and “z” without moving your tongue a millimeter. Unfortunately, while the voiced and voiceless “th” sounds remain distinct, they’re now represented by the same “th” sequence. The difference between “thy” and “thigh”, for example, is the first sound, but the spelling doesn’t reflect that. (Yet another example of why English orthography is horrible.)

Used with permission from the How To Be British Collection copyright LGP, click picture for website.

The fact that they’re written with the same letters even though they’re different sounds is only part of why they’re so hard to master. (That goes for native English speakers as well as those who are learning it as their second language: it’s one of the last sounds children learn.). The other part is that they’re relatively rare across languages. Standard Arabic  Greek, some varieties of Spanish, Welsh and a smattering of other languages have them.  If you happen to have a native language that doesn’ t have it, though, it’s tough to hear and harder to say. Don’t worry, though, linguistics can help!

I’m afraid the cartoon above may accurately express the difficulty of  producing the “th” for non-native speakers of English, but the technique is somewhat questionable. So, the fancy technical term for the “th” sounds are the interdental fricatives.  Why? Because there are two parts to making it. The first is the place of articulation, which means where you put your tongue. In this case, as you can probably guess (“inter-” between and “-dental” teeth), it goes in between your teeth. Gently!

The important thing about your tongue placement is that your tongue tip needs to be pressed lightly against the bottom of your top teeth. You need to create a small space to push air thorough, small enough that it makes a hissing sound as it escapes. That’s the “fricative” part. Fricatives are sounds where you force air through a small space and the air molecules start jostling each other and make a high-frequency hissing noise. Now, it won’t be as loud when you’re forcing air between your upper teeth and tongue as it is, for example, when you’re making an “s”, but it should still be noticeable.

So, to review, put the tip of  your tongue against the bottom of your top teeth. Blow air through the thin space between your tongue and your teeth so that it creates a (not very loud) hissing  sound. Now try voicing the sound (vibrating  your vocal folds) as you do so. That’s it! You’ve got both of the English “th” sounds down.

If you’d like some more help, I really like this video, and it has some super-cool slow-motion videos. The lady who made it has a website focusing on English pronunciation which has some great  resources.  Good luck!

How do you pronounce Gangnam?

So if you’ve been completely oblivious lately, you might not be aware that Korean musician Psy has recently become a international sensation due to the song below. If you haven’t already seen it, you should. I’ll wait.

Ok, good. Now, I wrote a post recently where I suggested that a trained phonetician can help you learn to pronounce things and I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and run you though how to pronounce “Gangnam”; phonetics style. (Note: I’m assuming you’re a native English speaker here.)

First, let’s see how a non-phonetician does it. Here’s a brief guide to the correct pronunciation offered on Reddit by ThatWonAsianGuy, who I can only assume is a native Korean speaker.

The first G apparently sounds like a K consonant to non-Korean speakers, but it’s somewhere between a G and a K, but more towards the G. (There are three letters similar, ,, and . The first is a normal “k,” the second the one used in Gangnam, and the third being a clicky, harsh g/k noise.)

The “ang”part is a very wide “ahh” (like when a doctor tells you to open your mouth) followed by an “ng” (like the end of “ending”). The “ahh” part, however, is not a long vowel, so it’s pronounced quickly.

“Nam” also has the “ahh” for the a. The other letters are normal.

So it sounds like (G/K)ahng-nahm.

Let’s see how he did. Judges?

Full marks for accuracy, Rachael. Nothing he said is incorrect. On the other hand, I give it a usability score of just 2 out of 10.  While the descriptions of the vowels and nasal sounds are intelligible and usable to most English speakers, even I was stumped by  his description of a sound between a  “g” and a “k”. A strong effort, though; with some training this kid could make it to the big leagues of phonetics.

Thank you Rachael, and good luck to ThatWonAsianGuy in his future phonetics career. Ok, so what is going on here in terms of the k/g/apparently clicky harsh sound? Funny you should ask, because I’m about to tell you in gruesome detail.

First things first: you need to know what voicing is. Put your hand over your throat and  say “k”. Now say “g”. Can you feel how, when you say “g”, there’s sort of a buzzing feeling? That’s what linguists call voicing. What’s actually happening is that you’re pulling your vocal folds together and then forcing air through them. This makes them vibrate, which in turn makes a sound. Like so:

(If you’re wondering that little cat-tongue looking thing is, that’s the epiglottis. It keeps you from choking to death by trying to breath food and is way up there on my list of favorite body parts.)

But wait! That’s not all! What we think of as “regular voicing” (ok, maybe you don’t think of it all that often, but I’m just going to assume that you do) is just one of the things you can do with your voicing. What other types of voicing are there? It’s the type of thing that’s really best described vocally, so here goes:

Ok, so, that’s what’s going on in your larynx. Why is this important? Well it turns out that only one of the three sounds is actually voiced, and it’s voiced using a different type of voicing. Any guesses as to which one?

Yep, it’s the harsh, clicky one and it’s got glottal voicing (that really low, creaky sort of voice)*. The difference between the “regular k” and the “k/g sound” has nothing to do with voicing type. Which is crazy talk, because almost every “learn Korean” textbook or online course I’ve come across has described them as “k” and “g” respectively and, as we already established, the difference between “k” and “g” is that the “k” is voiced and the “g” isn’t.

Ok, I simplified things a bit. When you say “k” and “g” at the beginning of a word in English (and only at the beginning of a word), there’s actually one additional difference between them. Try this. Put your hand in front of your mouth and say “cab”. Then say “gab”. Do you notice a difference?

You should have felt a puff of air when you said the “k” but not when you said the “g”. Want proof that it only happens at the beginning of words? Try saying “back” and “bag” in the same way, with your hand in front of you mouth. At the end of words they feel about the same.  What’s going on?

Well, in English we always say an unvoiced “k” with a little puff of air at the beginning of the word. In fact, we tend to listen for that puff more than we listen for voicing. So if you say “kat” without voicing the sound, but also without the little puff of air, it sounds more like “gat”. (Which is why language teachers tell you to say it “g” instead of “k”. It’s not, strictly speaking, right, but it is a little easier to hear. The same thing happens in Mandarin, BTW.) And that’s the sound that’s at the beginning of Gangnam.

You’ll probably need to practice a bit before you get it right, but if you can make a sound at the beginning of a word where your vocal chords aren’t vibrating and without that little puff of air, you’re doing it right. You can already make the sound, it’s just the moving it to the beginning of the word that’s throwing a monkey wrench in the works.

So it’s the unvoiced “k” without the little puff of air. Then an “aahhh” sound, just as described above. Then the “ng” sound, which you tend to see at the end of words in English. It can happen in the middle of words as well, though, like in “finger”. And then “nam”, pronounced in the same way as the last syllable as “Vietnam”.

In the special super-secret International Phonetic (Cabal’s) Alphabet, that’s [kaŋnam]. Now go out there and impress a Korean speaker by not butchering the phonetics of their language!

*Ok, ok, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. You can find the whole story here.

Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible

If you’re like me and have vivid memories of learning to read English, you probably remember being deeply frustrated. As far as four-year-old-Rachael was concerned,  math was nice and simple: two and two always, always equals four. Not sometimes. Not only when it felt like it. All the time. Nice and simple.

Reading, and particularly phonics, on the other hand, was a minefield of dirty tricks. Oh, sure, they told us that each letter represented a single sound, but even a kid knows that’s hooey. Cough? Bough? Come on, that was like throwing sand in a fight; completely unfair. And what about those vowels? What and cut rhyme with each other, not cut and put. Even as phonics training was increasing my phonemic awareness, pushing me to pay more attention to the speech sounds I made, English orthography (that’s our spelling system) was dragging me behind the ball-shed and pulling out my hair in clumps. Metaphorically.

Books that make literacy fun
“Oh man, they’re trying to tell us that A makes the ‘Aaahhh’ sound. What do they take us for, complete idiots? Or is that ‘whaahhht’ to they take us for?”
“I know, right? One-to-one correspondence? Complete rubbish!”
Of course, I did eventually pass third grade and gain mastery of the written English language. But it was an uphill battle all the way. Why? Because English orthography is retarded. Wait. I’m sorry. That’s completely unfair to individuals suffering from retardation. English orthography is spiteful, contradictory and completely unsuited to representing the second most widely-spoken second language. This poem really highlights the problem:

Recovering Sounds from Orthography

Brush up Your English

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead, it’s said like bed, not bead-
for goodness’ sake don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth, or brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s doze and rose and lose-
Just look them up- and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart-
Come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

A dreadful language? Man alive! I mastered it when I was five.

— T.S. Watt (1954)

So why don’t we get our acts together and fix this mess? Well… trying to fix it is kind of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. Basically, in renaissance England we started out with a basically phonetic spelling system. You actually sounded out words and wrote them as they sounded. “Aks” instead of “ask”, for example. (For what it’s worth, “aks” is the original pronunciation.) And you would be writing by hand. On very expensive parchment with very expensive quills and ink for very rich people.

Enter the printing press. Suddenly we can not only produce massive amounts of literature, but everyone can access them. Spelling goes from being something that only really rich people and scribes care about to a popular phenomena. And printing press owners were quick to capitalize on that phenomena  by printing spelling lists that showed the “correct” way to write words. Except there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement between the different printing houses and they were already so heavily invested in their own systems that they weren’t really willing to all switch over to a centralized system. By the time Samuel Johnson comes around to pin down every word of English like an entomologist in a field of butterflies, we have standardized spellings for most words… that all come from different systems developed by different people. And it’s just gotten more complex from there. One of the main reasons is that we keep shoving new words into the language without regard for how they’re spelled.

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.”

― James Nicoll

There’s actually a sound in English, the zh sort of sound in “lesiure”, that only exists in words we’ve “borrowed” from other language and, of course, there’s no letter for it. Of course not; that would be too simple. And English detests simple. If you’re really interested in more of the gory details, there’s a great lecture you can listen to/watch here by Edwin Duncan which goes into way more detail on the historical background. Or you can just scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary and wince constantly.