Dental consonants

‘D’ could be for quite a lot of issues in pronunciation including dialect, diphthong or devoicing, but I thought I’d follow up from my post on bilabials with this one on dental consonants. There are two dental consonants in English, /θ/ and /ð/, as in thing and that, respectively. The two sounds are made in the same way, with the tip of the tongue between the teeth, and the airflow being forced out of the mouth by passing over and around the tongue. /θ/ is voiceless and /ð/ is voiced. If you want, you can take a look at them through the Sounds of speech site here. (Such a shame that we are going to lose this web site, but you can now get it as an app at Welcome to Sounds of Speech).

The voiceless (inter)dental fricative, /θ/ (from ‘Sounds of Speech’)

So far, so simple it would seem. But as anyone who has spent any time in an English language classroom knows, the situation with these two dental sounds is anything but simple. A large part of the problems stems from the fact that these two sounds are not at all common in other languages. Wikipedia, for example, warns us that the two sounds “are rare phonemes occurring in 4% of languages in a phonological analysis of 2,155 languages”. The Wikipedia entry goes on to explain that out of more than 60 languages only English, certain dialects of Arabic, Standard European Spanish, and Greek have /θ/, whilst almost all of the languages of Europe and Asia lack /ð/.

As I mentioned in the post on bilabials, pronunciation is the area of language learning that is most influenced by the learner’s first language, so given the broad absence of /θ/ and /ð/ from the world’s languages, it is not surprising that these two sounds should regularly be replaced by other consonants in our learners’ English. These replacement sounds are generally /s/, /t/ and /f/ in the case of /θ/, and /z/, /d/ and /v/ when it comes to /ð/. Is this beginning to feel familiar to you? Do your students drive you crazy by Sinking zat, Tinking dat or finking bruvva, rather than just thinking?

These common substitutions shouldn’t surprise us. When your first language doesn’t possess one of the sounds of a language you are learning, then the automatic reaction is to replace it with something you have got. In fact, often learners actually perceive the ‘missing’ sound in terms of their first language system, which is one of the reasons why discrimination work is so important in pronunciation teaching, especially early on. Many languages, for example, have what are classed as dental /t/ and /d/, as opposed to the alveolar /t/ and /d/ of English. That is to say, in many languages, including French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, /t/ and /d/ are made with the front of the tongue pressed up against the back of the upper teeth. Take a look at an English /t/, and a Spanish /t/ , for example.

English and Spanish /t/ (from ‘Sounds of Speech’)

Even though both articulations are heard as the sound for the letter ‘t’ in their respective languages, the place in which the tongue makes contact with the mouth, and the part of the tongue that is used to make this contact, are quite different. (NB. The little mark under the symbol for the Spanish /t/ is the indication that this is a dental version of the phoneme.).

What has this got to do with /θ/ and /ð/, you’re possibly wondering? Well, scroll back up to look at the tongue position for English /θ/ and /ð/. It is remarkably similar to the position for Spanish /t/ and /d/, don’t you think? And because of this similarity, which extends to many other languages, dental /t/ and /d/ are natural candidates for substituting the ‘missing’ English dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/.

So why don’t we just teach learners the missing sounds? Isn’t that part of our job? Isn’t that what we are paid for? Well, yes. And no.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that countless hours have been spent over the years trying to get learners to pronounce the two English dental fricatives, but most of the time and energy invested has had a frustratingly limited effect. These two sounds are notoriously resistant to classroom teaching, and our learners’ ability to fail to acquire them (as do some native-speaker children, too) is so great that we might be tempted to ask if these two dental sounds actually matter. Is it possible, in fact, that there is life beyond the shibboleths of /θ/ and /ð/? Well, as before, yes and no.

If your learners’ goal is a (near-)speaker accent, and that accent uses /θ/ and /ð/, as most do, then your learners will have to work hard until they can master the articulation of the English dental fricatives. However, if their goal is international intelligibility, then the L1–driven tendency towards tink dat or sink zat is not important. The data collected from contexts in which English is being used as a lingua franca (ELF – see my next post for more details), shows that the English dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ can be replaced by dental /t/ and /d/ or by /s/ and /z/ with little or no impact on intelligibility.

In teaching/learning terms it’s a trade off. You can spend an eternity trying your best to perfect /θ/ and /ð/ without much success, or you can allow your learners to use the widely heard and understood alternatives, freeing up time and energy for things that matter more. Yes, they will have an accent, but you know what I think about people having accents (see my posts on this here and here). And of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are native–speaker accents of English that use dental /t/ and /d/ instead of /θ/ and /ð/ as a matter of course (e.g. an Irish accent) and nobody bats an eyelid. In fact, logically, if tink dat is acceptable when the speaker is Irish, why isn’t it acceptable when the speaker is Italian, Spanish, or French. It wouldn’t be that we are applying double standards here, would it?

Something similar happens with the Liverpool and Cockney accents which replace /θ/ and /ð/ with /f/ and /v/. A Londoner’s norvern bruvvers up in Liverpool would probably fink that you were better off going home (or something similar) if you were to try to correct their local accent, as would many Londoners if you were to set about correcting theirs. I love London (who doesn’t?), and I’ll never forget the day I was crossing it on the Undergroundimage watching a mother with her two young children. Watching, and inadvertently overhearing. The mother was busy on her phone and the two kids were entertaining themselves as best they could. The elder child, a girl of about eight, was reciting to herself over and over again, “That thing. Dat thing. That fing. Dat fing”. Suddenly, she turned to her younger brother (sorry, bruvva), and asked “Which do you prefer – that thing or dat fing?” The boy fought about it and replied in a purely matter–of–fact way, “I can say that thing but dat fing is easier”.

So there we have it in a nutshell:

  • English has two dental fricatives, /θ/ and /ð/.
  • these sounds are very rare in the other languages and are absent from some native-speaker accents of English.
  • they are remarkably resistant to classroom teaching.
  • they have little or no impact on intelligibility when English is being used for international communication (see the next post on ELF).
  • we wouldn’t correct the pronunciation of a native speaker who used any of the common alternatives to /θ/ and /ð/.
  • dat fing is easier.



7 thoughts on “Dental consonants

  1. Pingback: Fricatives | englishglobalcom

  2. Hi, so glad I’ve found this site. I am doing my final year project in this area. I’d like to use your materials and cite you but there are some points I’d like to discuss with you. Would this be possible? Thank you.

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