Friday, March 28, 2008

More digraphs: TH and WH

The TH sound

Continuing on the topic of digraphs, "th" is a example of a digraph that is used very frequently in English. There are two kinds of th sounds in English. What follows will be the IPA symbol used to represent the sound and some example words.

This symbol (called theta) represents the soft "th" sound occurring in words like thin, thigh, with, and breath.

This symbol (called eth) represents the hard "th" sound in words such as then, thy, there, and breathe.

There is no set rule for determining if the soft or hard "th" is used, it must be memorized.

The main difference between these two sounds is that the former is voiceless and the latter is voiced, just like [s] is voiceless and [z] is voiced.

The "th" sound is not at all common in many languages, despite being used very frequently in English. For speakers of languages that do not have the "th" sound, it is often perceived as an [s] or [z].


Another common digraph in English is WH. You know many of them as interrogative pronouns, sometimes called the "5W" words (who, what, where, when, why).

WH and HW

Most people see WH-words as taking just a [w] sound and leaving the [h] to be silent. However, did you know that for some dialects of English, the WH digarph is pronounced as if it were spelled "HW"?

This phenomenon is known as the whine/wine merger, as the h in WH words used to always be pronounced as [hw]. It is named as such because those words are no longer homophones after WH was realized with just a [w] sound and not [hw].

Note: for the "5W" words (who, what, where, when, why): this does not apply to the word who since it takes an [h] sound all the time (with the W silent) and not a [w] sound like the other four words.

For those that are using the "HW" sound, the [h] is often hard to notice, you have to listen very carefully as there is an initial, brief burst of air. Speakers that ignore the H in WH words often cannot tell if the other person is pronouncing the H.
Most of the time it is not a true [h] sound (as in the word hill), so a special IPA symbol is used, an upside-down w [ʍ] to represent the [hw].