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In standard English, the digraph th is a dental fricative [θ, ð]. Several dialects feature th-fronting, where th becomes a labiodental fricative [f, v]; others feature th-stopping, where th becomes a dental stop [t̪, d̪]. For example, three sounds like free with th-fronting, tree with th-stopping.

How well can English speakers distinguish word pairs in these dialects? Specifically:

  • Can th-modifying speakers distinguish /f–θ/ and /t–θ/ in their own dialects?
  • Can they distinguish minimal pairs as spoken in standard English?
  • Can standard English speakers distinguish the th-modified variants from similar words?

I expect that the answers vary between dialects and individuals, so I'm interested in reasonable generalizations. If there's a significant difference between (for example) th-fronting in Cockney and African American Vernacular English, I'd be interested in that too. Likewise if there's a significant difference between the voiced and unvoiced consonants.

Wikipedia notes that th-stopping dialects generally distinguish between the dental stop of thanks [t̪æŋks] and the alveolar stop of tanks [tæŋks], but they lose the /t–θ/ opposition in some cases like tree/three, and the /d–ð/ opposition is even weaker. This answers part of the question for th-stopping dialects: They can sometimes (but not not always) distinguish /t–θ/ in their own dialect, and I imagine they can also hear the opposition in standard English. I'm not sure whether a typical speaker of standard English could distinguish [t̪æŋks] from [tæŋks], however.

One case that particularly interests me is whether th-fronting speakers can distinguish the /f–θ/ opposition in standard English. When I say the minimal pair free–three /fɹi–θɹi/, can th-fronting speakers hear the difference, or is [f–θ] an allophone in free variation for them?


Examples of standard English minimal pairs that might merge in these dialects:

  • father/fava, mother/mutter
  • thin/fin, thin/tin
  • three/free, three/tree
  • with/whiff, with/wit
  • wraith/Ralph, wraith/rate
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I don't think this question requires a linguist's expertise to answer – indeed, I'm interested in the personal experience of th-modifying speakers – but I understand if this question is more appropriate for Linguistics. –  Bradd Szonye May 23 '13 at 22:22
    
TH also represents the phoneme /ð/ as well as the phoneme /θ/. The voicing is not automatic or predictable, though the distinction has a very low functional load in English. Examples of /ð/ are lots more common in English than examples of /θ/, because /θ/ is used mostly in lexical words, while /ð/ is used mostly in function words like the, this, that, either, other, although that we use thousands of times a day. –  John Lawler May 23 '13 at 22:46
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@BraddSzonye Oh, yes. I come from a small southern college town, where there was substantial dialectal contrast, even discounting the 'foreigners' from north of the Mason-Dixon line, between those of us (mostly from University and top-caste town families) who distinguished those vowels and those of us (mostly from farm/proletarian families) who did not. The non-discriminators understood Mary/marry/merry and pin/pen perfectly well in discourse but insisted they sounded exactly the same, no matter who spoke them. You hear what you expect to hear. –  StoneyB May 24 '13 at 0:01
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@StoneyB Moving from Michigan to Northern California, I had a similar experience with the cot-caught merger. The most shocking example was when I was introduced to a colleague named Don and expected to meet a woman (Dawn). I get the impression that locals can tell that there's something funny about the way I say half my Os, but they can't seem to tell the difference when I say Don/Dawn either. So I'm very curious to know whether th-fronters have a similar difficulty with whiff. :) –  Bradd Szonye May 24 '13 at 0:43
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Or yoots? –  StoneyB May 24 '13 at 0:48
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1 Answer

I don't think one can attempt to answer the question as is. By definition, if you merge, in production two sounds in your own dialect with respect to another (or rather rewrite one sound to an existing one), then two words that started in the standard dialect as different but are pronounced the same in the dialect are by definition indistinguishable (production or hearing) in that dialect. In some dialect, there is no distinction between 'three' and 'tree' there's just 'tree', spoken or heard, for the two different concepts. Only by definition, you cannot distinguish them if they merge.

Also, some rules are very context sensitive, those who say 'muvver' for 'mother' don't always say 'vin' for 'then' (oops, showing my pen/pin merger). So one may merge in certain contexts, but still produce and hear the unmerged context just fine.

Then, what truly is your question: are you talking about an individual speaking a dialect with a universal merge being able to distinguish them in another dialect where it is not merged? Then the answer, still by definition, is 'no', unless that person has enough exposure to the other dialect.

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