[b-hebrew] Phones and Phoneme Experiment (TH)

David Kimbrough (CLWA) dkimbrough at clwa.org
Fri Mar 19 11:42:25 EST 2004

Karl, Kevin, et al.

"For example, in English, the voiced and unvoiced th, though they are
different phones, represent the same phoneme. If I were to substitute an
unvoiced th for every voiced one, it wouldn’t make a whit of difference in

Ignoring the case I cited of Thy Thigh were the meaning is impacted by the
use of different "th"'s, the above statement is misleading in an important
way.  Consider the phrase "the thief" where each of these words use a
different TH.  

Experiment 1) Try reversing the two th's in this phrase.  You will find it
is actually very difficult to do.  Native English speakers accurately and
consistently use only one or the other, never switch them, and find it
difficult to switch them.  That we are not aware that we do this is not the

Experiment 2) With some practice however a native speaker can switch the two
th's at will.  Try speaking to another native English speaker and reverse
the "th"s.  Those listening to you will not only notice immediately
something is wrong, they will either not understand what you are saying or
be so distracted by your very odd pronunciation that they may not even
notice what you are trying to say.  Those hearing you might think you have a
speech impediment or just got out of the dentist's chair.

Thus, while the meaning of "the thief" will not have changed, one's ability
to effectively communicate that meaning orally will be lost or compromised.
Nothing is lost in writing however.  A linguist studying English 3,000 years
from now may be completely unaware of this important distinction based
solely on written English.

David Kimbrough

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