(labio-)dental fricatives


The realisation of /θ/ as /f/ in English (and similarly for its voiced equivalent) has long been thought of as a Cockney trait, made fun of by generations of comedians, and bemoaned by countless traditionalists as heralding the demise of ‘proper’ English. Less well-known is its occurrence in other varieties of English, such as certain Scots dialects, but it has never been recognized as an alternative acceptable pronunciation in standardized British English.

How long can we sustain this? It’s now heard from all sorts of otherwise apparently well-educated people. Is it to be classed as a speech defect? Lucy Worsley, the recently popular presenter of BBC television programmes on interior design (“If Walls Could Talk”), and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, uses /f/ and /v/ regularly, and yet she is clearly a very well educated woman.

How long before the various pronunciation dictionaries have to start including /friː/ alongside /θriː/, and /ˈfɜːvə/ together with /ˈfɜːðə/. This will create a whole new set of acceptable homophones, including fervour ~ further, free ~ three, and sliver ~ slither, the last of which are already confused by hyper-correcting Londoners who may talk of a ‘slither’ of wood.


  1. Why will dictionaries ever have to mark it as long as /θ/ continues to exist?

  2. Alexander – Pronouncing dictionaries will have to mark it because they indicate alternative pronunciations, and /friː/ will have become an alternative to /θriː/.

  3. @Graham:

    But why can the dictionaries not simply note, as a general principle, that some speakers merge /θ/ with /f/, rather than repeating this in every single entry?

    I believe that some American English dictionaries do something similar with the cot-caught merger.

  4. dw – We have a similar situation with /hw/ and /w/, but LPD gives both pronunciations in each case, EPD shows the /h/ as optional (by italicizing it) and ODPN disregards the /h/ for British pronunciations without making any comment on it in the introductory material. Your solution would be another. Perhaps it should be adopted also for /hw~w/.

  5. Lucy Worsley has a ‘teeth-clenching’ way of speaking. Has she ever lowered her jaw for more than a few millimeters? Has she ever rounded her lips to form a pig snout? All this does not prevent one from producing an postdental /θ/; but in view of the paucity of her articulatory movements, replacing /θ/ by /f/ is hardly surprising. Maybe, it’s an idiosyncrasy of hers. This, of course, does not mean there may be other celebrities doing this. So, can you, please, name some other person(s)?

  6. Dear Graham, I find that I’ve occasion·ly had similar impressions to yours to some extent but I wonder if you cou·d be exaggerating. I think there’s a good deal of diff·rence between what Lucy Worsley does for her GB /θ/ and /ð/ and what happens to the corresponding phonemes of, say, Harry Redknapp. She’s what I’d call a wholesale non-organic labiodentaliser. She has plenty of labiodental r’s too. To quote what I sed in my recent Blog 373 ‘Looking [GB] speakers in the face’.
    “Large numbers of [sc GB] speakers have idiosyncratic labiodentalised or labialised articulations. Some quite large numbers with certain types of dentition involuntarily labiodentalise most consonants. An example is that one can hear from time to time things like thousand uttered with an initial labiodentalised dental fricative as [ f͡θaʊznd].”
    Regarding your claim “It’s now heard from all sorts of otherwise apparently well-educated people”, I cert·nly wish you’d quote for us another dozen or so speakers whose performance we have access to online because I don’t feel that the moderate amount of Lucy Worsley I’ve he·rd convinces me.
    I’m inclined to classify her style as idiosyncratic. Same goes for speakers who’ve fully converted their practice to GB but may momentarily from time to time slip back into their former habit. None of these surely need even be mentioned in any pronunciation dictionary.
    [PS I wrote this before I re·d Petr’s similar comment.]

  7. Jack, Petr – It was Dr Worsley’s consistent example that finally made me write about this, although I’m sure in my own mind that it is quite common. Now I shall have to note it every time, and perhaps other readers of this can keep an ear out for it as well. I agree that Lucy’s single swallow, no matter how attractive, doesn’t make a language change summer.

  8. I’m originally from Lancashire and often merge /θ/ with /f/ and /ð/ with /v/. It was only at university that I discovered the existence of /θ/ from a Chinese friend who had studied phonetics. I don’t know if this is typical of Lancashire dialects, or if I picked it up from elsewhere – perhaps influenced by relatives from Kent. These days I only use /θ/ in careful speech and have to make a concious effort to articulate it sometimes.

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