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All my life I have been hearing and pronouncing /ði/(unstressed) in "the US", "the UK" and "the UN", but I'm not sure that was correct.

How do you pronounce "the" before a long u sound? I searched questions and answers in this forum and over the Internet, but could not find any rules.

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This is much like "a vs an" before a vowel, except the spelling of "the" does not change so it's harder to search out. In short, although it starts with U, it is pronounced "YOO ESS" and since it does not begin with a vowel sound, it does not lead to stressed ("thee") pronunciation. –  Digital Chris May 1 at 13:31
    
I wrote unstressed /ði/ sound. –  wordsalad May 1 at 13:34
    
... and we are in agreement. –  Digital Chris May 1 at 13:39
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The parallel rules are explained here. Native English speakers usually know the "a/an" rule, though they don't know why they say "a union" instead of "an union", because they were taught that U Is A Vowel. But very very few native speakers ever realize they pronounce the automatically in two separate ways, so they're almost always astonished when find out. Non-native speakers would have learned this as a matter of course in English class, if they had a competent English teacher. Not all do. –  John Lawler May 1 at 15:39
    
I have long thought that a stressed U (a long U) is a vowel sound. Your comment, John Lawler, along with all other comments and answers, really helped me know what I have been doing and why. I humbly thank you all. –  wordsalad May 1 at 17:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

For the, Follow the a/an Rule

To see what to do with the, look at what one does with a/an. It’s

  • a ukelele
  • a united front
  • a wonder
  • a one-dollar bill
  • a yellow pen
  • a yerba mate (also spelled a hierba mate)

Those are all without the article a changing to an. Those are all pronounced with a /j/ or a /w/ at the start of the noun, no matter how they are spelled.

So the same thing occurs with the: if and only if you would have an, then and only then you would have /ði/. Otherwise you have /ðə/. (I’m not considering the emphatic version /ˈðiː/ at this point, which is stressed and has a long vowel.)

What you are perhaps hearing with the is that the glide at the front of those words, which does not trigger an, also does not trigger /ði/.

However, it might be that there is some increased reduction of the unstressed vowel there, making it hard to hear the unstressed schwa and the blending into the /ju/. Maybe for you that makes that semi-vocalic /j/ seem like an /i/ in the previous word.

Glides Are Funny Things

That’s because the /j/ glide, just like the /w/ one, does ∫ count as a vowel sound, at least in English at the start of a falling diphthong like yak /jæk/ or feud /fjud/.

All that matters is that it does not trigger the switch from a to an, and so does not trigger the 1st alternate pronunciation of the either. So the union is /ðəˈjunjən/.

There does exist an emphatic pronunciation of the union as /ˈðiːˌjunjən/, but that is comparatively rare and used only for special purposes. I’m not convinced you can tell where one word ends and the next one starts for that, but nobody notices that because they “know” what you’re saying.

Glides are funny things:

In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel (or glide) is a sound, such as English /w/ or /j/, that is phonetically similar to a vowel sound but functions as the syllable boundary rather than as the nucleus of a syllable.

They are normally called semi-consonants when they occur at the start of “rising” diphthongs and triphthongs, and where they get written with consonants. They don’t count as vowels there. So /j/ is the palatal approximant and /w/ is the voiced labio-dental approximant, and both can form syllable boundaries or the start of a rising diphthong or triphthong. They cannot form syllabic nuclei.

Yet when the same glide occurs at the end of a “falling” diphthong or triphthong, it’s now called a semi-vowel and gets written with a vowel instead. (Interesting side question is whether it can trigger intrusive r in such speakers as have that trait.) But it is still not a syllabic nucleus: it is glide following the same in a falling diphthong.

Consider the symmetric triphthongs yay /jeɪ/ and wow /wɑʊ/ for example. The /e/ and /a/ form the syllabic nucleus, and they have the same glide on their front side as their back side. But when it comes to IPA, the rising one gets written with a consonant (and is such, since you can’t say ٭an yay or ٭an wow), but with a vowel on the falling side.

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I have mistaken on it for such a long time. Yes it blends. Thanks be to you, tchrist. –  wordsalad May 1 at 14:17
    
Smiling to You (©2014 Katrina Michelle LeRusso) / Meet you with a smile, and then the air that flows excels in your style. / Denial is no longer a necessity, and dissent will no longer be anyone’s adversity. / Because you have love that is so complete, people will find your ideals also concrete. / You make it your own specialty, and manifest that grace into everyone’s reality. / Then there's much love in your work of art, and there's a lot of love and care in your heart. (@tchrist: I would give your answer 100 votes up if I could.) –  wordsalad May 3 at 4:10

The rules for the pronunciation of the are quite simple: pronounce it with a long "e" (i.e. like "thee") before a word that begins with a vowel sound, and pronounce it with a schwa sound (i.e. like "thuh") otherwise.

"UN", "US", and "UK" (and indeed the full word "united" itself) may be spelt with a leading vowel "U", but are pronounced as if they start with a consonant "Y", so "the" is pronounced with a schwa. That is, "thuh UN", not "thee UN".

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Thank you, tobyink. But "united" has a short u sound while "US" has a long u sound. And I find myself very uncomfortable pronouncing /ðə/ before the long u sound in "the US". Does anybody share this experience? –  wordsalad May 1 at 13:38
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Both united and US begin with a Y sound. –  Digital Chris May 1 at 13:41
    
@wordsalad, I have no trouble saying /ðə/ before any /ju/-initial word, regardless of whether the /u/ is reduced or not: it is perfectly natural and (I think) how I would pronounce it in normal speech. I don’t find a somewhat assimilated pronunciation with [ɘ] or [ɪ̈] unnatural or strange, either—but I do find a pronunciation with a clear [i] (as found before a true vowel sound) unnatural and quite hard to pronounce without stressing the article. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 1 at 13:45
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@wordsalad: the technical term is a stressed /ju/; you'll confuse people if you say long /ju/. –  Peter Shor May 1 at 16:34
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@Peter Shor: Thank you for the enlightenment. I remembered from learning aid for kids that it was called long /ju/. –  wordsalad May 1 at 17:15

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