or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 16, 2005


I'm not a linguist, but I've read that very few languages use the interdental fricative, and really, who can blame them? It seems counterproductive for a language to produce a sound that could theoretically result in the tongue's being bitten off.

A fricative sound is one which is produced by forcing air through a small space in the mouth. The first sounds of the words "fake", "sake", and "shake" are fricatives. Dental sounds are those which are produced by placing the tongue against the teeth, and interdental sounds are produced by placing the tongue between the teeth. English is one of those rare languages that uses the interdental fricative, and in fact it has two: the voiced (that is, involving the vocal cords) "th-" as in "those" and "clothe", and the unvoiced (a mere hiss of air with no vocal cords) "th-" as in "thwart" and "cloth".

These sounds give learners a huge amount of trouble, because they're so rare. Not the spelling: French and German speakers use "th-", but the "-h-" is silent. When they run up against the sound in English, the French (who have a soft, nasalized, vowelly language) generally produce a "-z" ("anuzzer" for "another") and Germans are likely to produce a "-d" ("mudder" for "mother") in keeping with their harder, more consonantal tongue.

Even if the sounds should be mastered, there's no reliable clue as to which of the two sounds is called for. It's almost always true that an "-e-" following "-th-" indicates a voiced fricative, but there are exceptions ("theatre"). An "-i-" or "-u-" almost always indicates an unvoiced fricative, with a couple of tiny exceptions ("thine", "thus"). Other vowels are wildly irregular ("thank"/"than", "thought"/"though", "thyroid"/"thy").

And, predictably, the vowel sounds preceding the interdental fricatives are just as random. Look at "wreath" and "breath"; "heath", "heathen", and "heather"; or "hearth" and "earth" (and "dearth"--even native English speakers can't agree on which of those two words it should rhyme with).


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