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
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
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
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
/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.