English TH

How To Pronounce the English “th”

“ze mozer of ziz boyz iz tirti-tree”

A standard problem of English pronunciation: the English “th.” It involves pronouncing sounds unused in many languages.

With a little help and practice, these sounds are actually not very hard to master.

True enough, it is possible to speak English correctly without mastering the pronunciation of the English “th.” Its pronunciation is often not considered a priority in the technical literature. Nevertheless, my experience is that its mastery is often a wish of the learners themselves. Furthermore, since the “th” is quite frequent in English, the mispronunciation of its associated sounds may be irritating to natives. Finally, in some words the mispronounciation can create completely different words: sin-thin, thick-sick, thinking-sinking as in this video. (See Pennington and Rogerston-Revell, 149).

The Three Ways to Pronounce the “th”

There are not two but three ways to pronounce the “th.” They are represented by three symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet used in many handbooks, dictionaries, on the internet, etc. Since many books used to learn English use the IPA, I will use it here too.

These three symbols are t – θ – ð

  • t: Thames, Thailand, Theresa, Thyme.
  • θ: three, lethal, mouth.
  • ð: this, mother, breathe.
Let’s be clear. You often hear or read about the pronunciation of the “th” sound in English (as in top picture of this post). This is not correct. “Th” is not a sound, but two letters that represent three different sounds: /t/, /θ/, and /ð/.

Be careful with words like lighthouse, lighthearted, etc. Here the “th” comes from joining a word ending in “t” (light) with a word beginning in “h” (house, hearted). This is therefore a different situation. You do not say ligh-thouse but light-house. The same goes for light-hearted.

/t/ as in Tom

This is the easiest pronunciation of “th,” but it is not very common in English. In this case “th” is simply pronounced as a regular English /t/.

You will find some regional variations, but this is the way many people say “th” in some proper nouns and a few other nouns such as Thailand, Thames, Theresa, Thomas, Thyme, Esther.

Beware, not all proper nouns with “th” use the /t/ pronunciation. For example, Thatcher, Thea, Thelma use the /θ/ that we will study.

There are no rules to know when “th” is pronounced /t/. You learn this with practice.

/θ-ð/

These two ways of saying “th” are almost the same. The only difference is that /ð/ is said with a vibration of the vocal chords, /θ/ without. Don’t worry about how to make the chords vibrate. It happens automatically if you follow the instructions below.

Few languages use the /θ-ð/ sounds. That’s why many people have a problem with them.

Through the years one common problem I have seen is that many people try to say a /t/ when attempting to pronounce these two sounds.

The most important rule is to not even try to pronounce a /t/ when saying /θ/ and /ð/, even if you see one in writing. To say the sound /t/, you have to close the passage of the air between the tongue and the upper teeth, which makes it then physically impossible to say /θ/ or /ð/. Think only /θ-ð/, not “th”.

So, how do you say these two sounds? It’s really not too difficult. Place the tip of the tongue against the top front teeth, without completely blocking the passage of the air. The consonant sounds /θ/ and /ð/ are what’s called “fricatives,” meaning the passage of the air is not totally blocked but goes through as by friction. Then, try to say the sounds (not the letters) /s/ as in Sam, or /z/ as in zebra. The muscles of the tongue and the cheeks need to be relaxed. Everything depends on the tongue being close to the teeth without touching them. If you can put the tongue close to the teeth and say /s/ or /z/ you can pronounce /θ-ð/.

There are no rules to decide when to say /θ/ or /ð/. You learn this with practice.

It is often suggested to stick the tongue out a little bit between the teeth to say /θ/ or /ð/, as if they were “interdentals.” Many pronounce them that way but it is not always the easiest way to say them in speaking fast since the tongue has to travel further in the mouth. If it works for you, though, that’s fine. (On this see Roach, 40–41).

/θ/ as in three

To say the /θ/, place your tongue in the position described above and try to say /s/ as in Sam or to blow air.

For those who speak Spanish, it is basically the same sound as in the Castilian Spanish pronunciation of “ción” in words like atención, jubilación, etc. It is also the same sound as in the Arabic thā (ث)

This sound can be found in words

  • at the beginning: three, throw, through, thin, thank, think, thief
  • in the middle: author, lethal, panther, ethnic, Arthur, nothing,
  • at the end: teeth, mouth, breath, bath, heath, death, north, south, worth

/ð/ as in this

The position of the tongue is the same as in /θ/, but you say the sound /z/ (as in zebra, zorro, etc., not the letter z). If you touch your throat while saying this sound, you will feel the vibration of your vocal chords. This is the same sound as the Arabic dhāl (ذ).

Few words use this sound, but they are very common.

This sound can be found in words

  • at the beginning: the, this, that, these, those, then, than, thus, there, they, their, them, and in some old words like thou, thee, etc.
  • in the middle: weather, mother, leather
  • at the end: breathe, bathe

Summary

There are three ways to pronounce the “th” in English.

/t/ is the normal English /t/.

/θ, ð/: the position of the tongue is the same, touching the top front teeth, /θ/ is pronounced without vibration of the vocal chords, /ð/ with vibration.

Don’t try to insert a /t/ when saying /θ, ð/.

Be careful too not to say /f/ or /d/. The only sound that should come out is /s/ or /z/, but with the tongue close to the teeth to actually say /θ, ð/.

Often, the best way to quickly improve your pronunciation is through private lessons with a teacher or someone who is trained in language instruction or to pay a coach. It’s a once in a lifetime investment. It’s like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it.

Practically Speaking

There are, of course, many resources available on the internet.

Ideally, you should listen to a lot of English. Our brain also learns by imitation. Here are some ideas to help you.

As you do so, try noticing the different pronunciations of the “th.” It’s hard to reproduce sounds that you don’t really hear or are not used to hearing.

The goal is not to be good at exercises with individual words but in normal speed speech. Spend time learning to say things in a normal context, not just words or small sentences.

Some people might need a coach or a speech therapist. That’s ok. It’s not unusual for native English-speaking children to do so to.

Some Exercises

There are many exercises with individual words available. Here are a few more ideas.

Tongue-Twisters

He th/θ/rew th/θ/ree free th/θ/rows
The baby’s teeth/θ/ will soon teethe /ð/.
Th/ð/e th/θ/ree children bath/ð/e in th/ð/e same bath /θ/.

Words with a Small Difference

loath – to loathe, sooth – to soothe, teeth – to teethe, cloth – to clothe
thin – tin, thigh – tie, tenth – ten
with – wit, oath – oat
they- day, their, there -dare, those – doze, than – Dan
three – free, thrill – frill

Text

My father and mother, Thomas and Theresa, do not like to bathe in the Thames but like to bathe in the sea. Neither of them likes to swim in the months of winter or when the weather is bad. The cold water bothers them too much. My brother also likes to bathe in the sea but only when there are small waves. His method is to never go deeper than his thigh.

There you go. Now say “The mother of these boys is thirty-three.”

References

Pennington, Marha C., and Rogerson-Revell, Pamela. English Pronunciation Teach and Research: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Palgrave Mac Millan, 2019.
Roach, Peter. Phonetics and Phonology: a Practical Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.