More on dental fricatives

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In a recent post, Jane Setter wrote about the possible future loss of the dental fricatives (/θ, ð/) from English, in favour of /f,v/. I also wrote not so long ago about the confusion between these two pairs of fricatives here. I’ve since heard another hypercorrection: “sheathes of corn”.

This tendency to hypercorrection could be another indication that the dental fricatives will disappear: people who are certain of the ‘correctness’ of their pronunciation will have no problem distinguishing these sounds and putting them in the traditional places correctly. Am I right in thinking that it is only when uncertainty creeps in that a fear of getting it ‘wrong’ will lead to overcorrection? As this uncertainty spreads, will it not lead first to the two pairs of sounds becoming merely free variants, and then to the one which is supposedly more difficult to articulate disappearing altogether?

I am being very tentative, as predictions for the future course of language development are always no more than guesses.

8 Comments

  1. A few days ago I came across an image of a map of Cornwall published in the late 17th century. I was surprised to see that what I call St. Ives was shown as St. Ithes! This is not an error. Ithes was a fairly common alternative apparently.

  2. John –
    Thanks for this. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Liverpool was “Litherpool” at some stage. If the frequency ranges of /f,v/ and /θ,ð/ are so similar that people confuse the two, how is it that I, fairly well advanced in my seventh decade, can still separate them quite easily?

  3. It’s possible this is not a general sound change sweeping across the country like loss of coda r. It could be a proportion everywhere prefers [f,v] for /θ,ð/. Hearing loss could be involved, or toddlers deviating during their language acquisition. So your age is irrelevant, Graham, your hearing is probably still adequate. And why should late hearing loss affect your pronunciation of /θ,ð/ anyway? If you’ve programmed your lip and tongue for /θ,ð/, you should continue doing it. And the functional load on this contrast is so low that comprehension is hardly affected, which is why so many get away with it. You have e.g. “thin” and “fin”, but they’re different parts of speech. In real life you’d probably want to say something like “thin slice” and “shark’s fin”.

  4. Sidney – I didn’t make myself clear. I meant to say that I can still hear the distinction between dental and labio-dental fricatives. As it happens, I was recently offered a free hearing test (rather rudimentary) by Boots the Chemists, with the promise of 150 points on my loyalty card (worth £1.50). Needless to say, being a grasping skinflint, I took up the offer, and was told that my hearing is better than average for my age – whatever that really means.

  5. Graham, that’s what I assumed. As phoneticians we’ve been privileged to work in quiet places, and we’re strongly aware of the hazard and careful elsewhere. You could play around here (no bonus points) : http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/hearing.html
    There’s more to read there too, and further links.
    Average for your age (men, probably the 50% divide) is roughly progressive from 10dB loss at 250Hz to 40dB loss at 8000Hz. You are better than that. Weaker hearing than that would give difficulties with speech. TV sets (cathode ray tubes) used to emit a tone at 16kHz – I haven’t heard since I was 70, and current LED sets don’t do it.

  6. Sidney – Thanks for the link. I shall certainly play around with it, but not this evening. I’m not sure that 23 years in a BBC office, with the phone ringing incessantly, counts as a “quiet place”, and I have also played the piano rather a lot for almost the whole of my life, but at least I haven’t had to sit in front of the trombones, where baffles have been introduced only fairly recently. A propos of nothing. really, but at the bottom end of the frequency range, I have played a church organ in a nearby village which has a 32 ft stop for the pedals. There is a hand-written post-it note attached to the stop saying “please do not use this stop, as it causes plaster to fall from the ceiling”.

  7. I suggest that it depends on the degree of stigma. H-dropping covered virtually all of England at one point (in terms of working-class speech), but the letter /h/ has made quite a comeback in recent times. This is probably owing to the stigma on omitting the letter.

    I don’t think that there is the same stigma on TH-fronting, but perhaps enough of a stigma that the sounds will never disappear completely.

  8. To add another point, I wish that more research had been done on why Sheffielders became known as “dee-dahs”. This nickname is supposed to indicate the Sheffield pronunciation of /ð/, although even the earliest dialectal studies on Sheffield do not give much insight into it.

    As I see it, there are three possibilities.

    1 It is simply a myth that Sheffielders have a uncommon pronunciation of /ð/
    2 The Sheffield pronunciation for /ð/ died out so long ago that is not recorded anywhere
    3 There is a Sheffield pronunciation of /ð/ that differs from [ð] but it does so only subtly and has been missed by researchers.

    I think that 3 is most likely. Given the nickname, I hypothesise that the Sheffield pronunciation was something mid-way between [ð] and [d].

    And then there would be the subject of what happens to /θ/ in Sheffield.

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