Friday, 30 September 2016

The future of those tricky "th" sounds

A number of newspapers have reported this week that the "th" sounds will die out by 2066 in British English (here's an article in the Daily Telegraph)*. How likely is this assertion?

Dental fricatives [θ] and [ð], spelled "th" in English and found in words like thin and this respectively, are very low incidence in languages of the world; they are found in fewer than 50 of the world's 6000-7000 spoken languages**. In some cases, they only occur because of a phonological process. For example, [ð] appears in Castilian Spanish between two vowels, where it is an allophone of the phoneme /d/.

Dental fricatives are also late acquired in English - i.e., children start using them later than some other consonants.  SLT Info, for example, explains that English-speaking children do not start using them until around four years of age, while some consonants, such as /p/, /b/, /m/ and /w/ (what's the common factor here?), are produced as linguistic sounds as early as the age of two.

Most new varieties of English around the world do not use dental fricatives.  Hong Kong English speakers, for example, produce /θ/ as [f] (three sounds like free) and /ð/ as [d] (this sounds like diss).

There are also accents of British English which have been around for a very long time which do not use dental fricatives. Do any British readers of a certain age remember the Qualcast advert "It's a lot less bovver than a hover" (see around 48 seconds)?  This works because accents such as Cockney, for example, have been substituting dental fricatives for other sounds for some time. /ð/ word initially is often produced as [d], and between two vowels as [v], as in this advert. /θ/, just like Hong Kong English, is produced by Cockney speakers as [f]; in fact, as a child learning Maths, when the new teacher arrived who was ethically Chinese and from Hong Kong in the 1970s, we all thought she was from London as she pronounced Maths as /mæfs/.

Producing /ð/ as [d] is known as stopping - i.e., the fricative is produced as a stop or plosive consonant - and producing /ð/ as [v] and /θ/ as [f] is known as fronting - i.e., the fricatives are produced further forward in the mouth, in this case, as labio-dental fricatives.  These are both processes which are common in developing child language in English.  Some varieties of English stop /θ/, so it is produced as [t] or similar; Southern Irish accents do this, as does Jamaican English.

Given that dental fricatives are very low incidence in languages in the world, late acquired, and often substituted in regional and global varieties of English, it is not really a surprise that they are predicted to die out at some point in the future. This might be down to multiculturalism, or it might simply be because they seem to be of less importance in international communication in English. Which is it? It might be difficult to decide.

Update, 03/10/2016

* This was in the context of multilingualism in British English. My discussion looks at other issues.

** My Twitter colleague Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) has found that there are at least 112 languages with dental fricative phonemes.

21 comments:

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  3. The dental fricatives seem to be on the decline in England (and possibly Britain), but there is no evidence that they're dying out in North America or the Antipodes. A lot of the commentary about this report has been rather Anglocentric.

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    1. The dental fricatives seem to be on the decline in England (and possibly Britain)...

      ...and possibly the United Kingdom! You can hear TH-fronting from quite a few Northern Irish boys and young men now too. I'm not sure how it spread there, but I would be surprised if it was through face to face contact with the English. It's interesting to me that so far this feature seems to only be found in the part of Ireland that's politically united with Britain.

      One exception to that last statement is a 20-something, stand-up comedian from County Donegal whose show I went to one time. He had some TH-fronting in his speech. As you may know, Donegal is linguistically, but not politically Northern Irish. But it's still part of Ulster and I've yet to hear an Irish person from outside of that province who had TH-fronting.

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  4. Indeed. The inertia of 350 million North Americans is yuuuuuuuuge. And the few th-stopping accents that exist here (traditional New York and New Orleans) are very much in regression on this point.

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  5. I've amended the opening of this post. The newspaper articles on this topic are specifically about British English. But there are more speakers of non-British/American/Antipodean Englishes around the world than speakers in those groups, and many of them do not use dental fricatives.

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    1. Exactly- the lingua franca does quite nicely without these quirky little items 😎

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    2. Exactly- the lingua franca does quite nicely without these quirky little items 😎

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    3. It can depend on your target as a learner, though, Paul. They are tricky for speakers of L1s which do not have them and the LFC does not rate them as necessary for international communication, but speakers/learners of English who wish to sound like e.g. British or American native speakers of English will need to master them to manage this.

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  6. My colleague John Coleman at Oxford who works on historical linguistics and predicting change explains that, although low incidence in languages in the world, dental fricatives have survived for 4000+ years in languages which use them and are, therefore, highly robust. The newspaper articles are talking about social change in the UK because of the number of speakers in Britain now who do not use them. That might be the deciding factor ... or they may not die out at al.

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  7. My dad never pronounced dental fricatives, and he was born and raised in the US. Of course, he grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is known for a pretty heavy Fargo-like accent. His pronunciation went like this:

    this, that > dis, dat
    thick, thin > tick, tin
    three, thread > tree, tread

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  8. Apparently widespread social acceptance of TH-fronting is also part of the reason that some of us would predict that this change will spread and stick in the UK. The same goes for a phonetic change, the increase of heavily labialised /r/, though in the latter case, speakers seem to be unaware of it rather than accepting it (though they do seem to note it and reject it when there may be merger with /w/).
    Additional things I often notice that are MUCH more common than they used to be (it seems, to this old geezer), and which are apparently not worthy of vocal dislike are of course fronted GOOSE and GOAT, vocalised /l/, ejective /k/, phrase-final lip-closing.
    Some of these might stick diachronically too.
    The low functional load of TH vs. F, the late acquisition of some TH forms, social acceptance: these all argue for loss of one or both TH forms.

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    1. Love your reply..! Could you give us an example of labialized /r/? Much obliged!!

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    2. Comedian Paul Merton produces his /r/ sounds as labiodental, but this does not necessarily involve heavy labialisation (i.e., strong lip-rounding). See here, from about 1 minute in. Watch his mouth when producing /r/ sounds in 'pressure' and 'satirical programme'. There is not a lot of lip-rounding here, but the /r sounds are most definitely labiodental. Labiodental /r/ sounds are common in may accents of British English.

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    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMdF19coO2s

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    4. I think Jonathan Ross does too.

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    5. Yes, with lots of lip-rounding!

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