Oh Herro!

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:

Girrr Scout Berwownies!
(photo by my mom)

11 thoughts on “Oh Herro!”

  1. …and did you know that adult Asians literally cannot hear the difference but if you expose an Asian non=English speaking toddler to the different r/w/l sounds they can hear the difference and will carry it into adult life….
    CUTE CUTE picture!!!

  2. I love linguistics. I have my BA from Michigan State University in German and English, and I took one Spanish course. I love languages! My favorite classes though, were the ones that that got into the linguistic side, with the symbols and theories and so on.

    Excellent post!

    And, I'll take 2 boxes of thin mints please. 🙂

  3. Amusing to get phonetics explained from American-Tejas point of view. In the Swedish language (in spite of the old Vikings) we have neither of the two “th” sounds. More trouble to us when learning English though I think is to distinguish between [s] and [z] (peace/peas).

  4. It's disconcerting when one can't hear the difference. The German exchange student we are hosting has a simple English (we thought) name with an “ee” vowel in it. Only we can't get it right. We can't really hear the difference at all when she pronounces it for us. But to her ears the American pronunciation is so different that at first it didn't register when friends at school called her name.

  5. I love this stuff. The most interesting subject I ever took was 6 credits in Descriptive Linguistics which covered phonetics, phonemics and morphology. Endlessly fascinating.

  6. I took Spanish in high school, but not enough to get me out of foreign language in college. So in college I decided I'd had enough of Spanish and took Chinese instead. The language is very musical (at least that is how it is to me). The same word pronounced with four different intonations is four different words. I would spend HOURS in the language labs listening to those workshops and I never could hear it. Never. So to say the least I understand how it all sounds the same to them. And an interesting side note, the native Chinese speaker told me I spoke with a funny Spanish accent when I spoke Chinese.

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