Two th sounds exist in the English language.
The sound our th makes in words like thanks and pithy looks like this in the phonetic alphabet: θ and you can click here for what it sounds like.
This other one fascinates me, though:
It’s a phonetic symbol for the sound th makes in words like mother and gather and then. Click here for a soundbite (you really should). It’s called eth. And you pronounce eth with that vibraty th noise from the middle of mother. Try it out. It’s kind of buzzy.
(Then try saying mother with the first th sound. Weird, right?)
Reasons why I like eth:
- Cool looking cross-thingy at the top.
- Vikings used it a lot.
- It makes that r/w/l problem Asians seem to have comprehensible to me.
Oh, what? Why is that?
I shall explain.
I learned all about eth in a linguistics class. At the time, I was also knee-deep in Spanish, after taking a smattering of German and Latin classes. Spanish was destroying me. But the upshot of all that random language stuff, especially the history of them, was that I started noticing accents and actually wondering about them instead of making fun of them (don’t judge me; it’s what I do).
Asian accents of the English language often transpose r or w or l. I could never figure out why that was. Can’t they hear the difference?! It’s so obvious!
Actually, most Asian non-native English speakers have a terrifically difficult time making the distinction between the three sounds. Phonetically (that’s… soundy… and how your mouth moves), r and w and l are very similar, and in many Sino-Tibetan language families the sounds are totally interchangeable, just like θ and ð sounds are for native English speakers. That is, none of those sounds mean anything different than any of the others. For them, wheel and real and leer sound pretty much exactly the same and would be slightly different pronunciations of the same word, just like moðer and moθer in English.
All makes sense, now, huh? If not, here’s a cute picture of my younger, more-Asian-looking-self to distract you: