221: Compare 'unvoiced th' to /f/, /s/, and /t/

Compare words like "thin/fin," "mouth/mouse," and "both/boat"

Hi again, and welcome back to the American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda and this is our 221st episode.

I recently received an email from listener Antoine asking if I would do a podcast comparing the 'unvoiced th' sound and the /f/. I haven’t talked about the 'th sounds' in a long time, so that sounded like a fantastic idea! But more I thought about it, the more I wondered why to compare the 'unvoiced th' to just the /f/. Other sounds that non-native speakers often use in place of the 'unvoiced th' are the /s/ and /t/, so I should also include those.

'unvoiced th': pronunciation, spelling, practice
/f/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/s/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/t/: pronunciation, spelling, practice

American English Pronunciation Podcast 221

Before we get into comparisons, though, let’s talk about the 'unvoiced th' sound. First, why do I keep saying “unvoiced th sound” instead of just the “th sound”? Well, remember that—just like many other consonant sounds in English—we have two versions of the 'th sound'—an unvoiced version and a voiced version. Let’s explore unvoiced and voiced sounds with an easier pair: the /p/ and /b/ sounds.

The /p/ is unvoiced. Put a couple of fingers on the front of your throat and say the /p/: (p sound). Be sure that you’re saying just the /p/ and not the /p/ plus a vowel added to it. You want to say (p sound) and not “puh.” Now do the same thing with your fingers on your throat and say the /b/: (b sound). Do you feel the difference? If you’re doing it correctly, you’ll feel the vibration in your throat with the /b/, but not with the /p/.

The 'voiced' and 'unvoiced th' sounds are the same idea, but they’re a little more confusing because both sounds are usually spelled 't-h.’ For example, the ‘th’ in the word “this” is voiced and the 'th’ in the word “thing” is unvoiced.

So, how do you say the 'th sounds'? Well, it is very likely that you were told to put your tongue between your front teeth and to push air out. Okay… that will work, but nearly all of my students find that creating the 'th sounds' in that way is actually much harder than keeping your tongue inside your mouth. To create the sounds with your tongue inside your mouth, use the tip of your tongue and the back side of your top front teeth. Oddly enough, forcing air between the tip of the tongue and the back of the top front teeth creates the same sound as putting your tongue between your teeth. Keeping your tongue inside your mouth is easier for the simple reason that your tongue doesn’t need to move so far to get to and from the surrounding sounds.

Try it. Say the 'unvoiced th’ by very lightly pressing the tip of your tongue into the back of your top front teeth. Keep the touch very light because you need to push air between your tongue and teeth to create the sound: (unvoiced th).

Now, if you’re doing it correctly, notice that the air comes out of your mouth smoothly and that you can hold the sound for a long time. This is because the ‘th sounds' are fricatives, meaning they are created with continuous friction and not by ever completely blocking the air. If you block the air, a “puff” will happen when the air is released, and you don’t want that.

Say the 'unvoiced th’ again and try holding it for a few seconds. (Note to audience: sorry, but this is a 'voiced th' sound).

Okay, are you ready to compare the pronunciation of this sound to a few other sounds’ pronunciations? Let’s start with Antoine’s /f/. There are three similarities between the 'unvoiced th’ and the /f/. Both sounds are unvoiced, they both are fricatives, and they both use the front teeth to create their sounds.

Introduction to Fricatives

The biggest difference between the sounds is that the 'unvoiced th' sound uses the tip of the tongue to create the sound (whether between the front teeth or just using the top front teeth) and the /f/ uses the bottom lip to create the sound.

Say the /f/ with me, creating the sound by tipping the bottom lip in slightly and pressing it, so, so lightly, against the top front teeth: (f sound).

Now let’s say the 'unvoiced th’ and then the /f/: (unvoiced th, f sound, 'unvoiced th,' f sound).

As usual we’re going to practice a few minimal pairs for these sounds. Minimal pairs are two words that are the same except for one sound. I’ll leave time for you to repeat each pair after me:

thirst, first
thin, fin
three, free
death, deaf
offer, author (note, /f/ word was first)

Nice job!

If you want more practice for these sounds, listen at the end of this show for details about the new, limited time supplemental material you can get from Pronuncian.com.

Before I take about that, though, let’s move on to comparing the 'unvoiced th' to another troublesome sound, the /s/: (s sound). The /s/ sound is also a fricative and is also unvoiced. Like the 'unvoiced th,' the /s/ uses the tongue to create the sound, but it doesn’t use the tip of the tongue. Instead it uses the front of the tongue, slightly back from the tip. The friction we need for the /s/ happens between the front of the tongue and the tooth ridge. Wait—what’s the tooth ridge?

The tooth ridge is that little bump right behind the top front teeth. When we create the /s/, the front of the tongue presses into the tooth ridge and the air travels from back to front along the centerline of the tongue. It’s like a tiny string of air pushed between the tongue and the tooth ridge. Say the /s/ after me: (s sound).

If you’re trying to create an 'unvoiced th’ and an /s/ is coming out instead, that means you’re using the tooth ridge instead of the front teeth to create the sound. Your tongue is just too far back.

Let’s say the 'unvoiced th’ and then the /s/: (unvoiced th, s sound). Again: (unvoiced th, s sound).

Let’s practice with five minimal pairs. I’ll say the pair and leave time for you to repeat after me:

faith, face
myth, miss
mouth, mouse
theme, seem
thumb, some

The supplement for this episode had fifteen additional 'unvoiced th,’ /s/ minimal pairs for download and practice.

Finally, let’s compare the 'unvoiced th’ to a sound that isn’t a fricative, the /t/. Of the /f/, /s/, and /t/, the /t/ is the substitution I hear most often among my students. The /t/ is a stop sound. Stops are created when we briefly block the air from leaving the mouth, then we release it with a little puff of air. Say the /t/ with me: /t/. Notice that you use the tooth ridge in a similar place for the /s/ as for the /t/. The difference is that the /t/ briefly blocks all of the air while the air stays continuous for the /s/.

Introduction to Stops

Let’s compare the 'unvoiced th’ with the /t/. I’m going to say both sounds, the 'unvoiced th' first, then the /t/: ('unvoiced th,' /t/). Now repeat them after me: (unvoiced th, /t/).

Of course, we’re now going to practice with some minimal pairs. I’ll say the word with the 'unvoiced th’ first, then the word with the /t/. Ready?

both, boat
thought, taught
three, tree
path, pat
death, debt

If you want more practice like this, I just added a supplemental practice PDF and MP3 audio download for all of these minimal pairs to the pronuncian.com products page. There are 10 pairs to compare it with the 'unvoiced th' with /f/, 20 pairs to compare it with the /s/, and /25/ pairs to compare it with the /t/. In addition, the supplement includes the 50 most common words in English that are pronounced with the 'unvoiced th' sound.

You can buy and instantly download these lists and the accompanying audio for just $6.00 US. Or, if you’ve been thinking about making another purchase from Pronuncian.com, do it now and you can get the supplement for free! Just add both products to your shopping cart and use the coupon code “Episode221”! Go to pronuncian.com, spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com and click the “Books and Products” link. As always, your purchases go directly to keeping this podcast coming to you after all these years.  

I’ll only be keeping the supplement and the coupon code “Episode221” up until the end of 2016, so if you want it, go get it now before you forget.

Oh, and one more thing, Antione will be receiving a free copy of the supplement for giving me the idea for this show. If you have ideas you’d like me to talk about, email me podcast@pronuncian.com. Maybe you’ll get something good, too!