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Why is threshold pronounced "thresh-hold"?

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  • 1
    Usually it isn't, though the difference is minimal unless someone speaks very slowly. But my pronunciation would not include an extra "h". Apr 4, 2014 at 12:50
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    In my accent I certainly do pronounce an extra "h". Perhaps the question is in which accents do speakers pronounce the word "threshold" with an extra h? New York / Brooklyn accent speaking here. Apr 4, 2014 at 12:52
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    I think you have it backwards, since speech is primary. And there can seldom be an answer as to why we spell things as we do.
    – tchrist
    Apr 4, 2014 at 12:54
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    To make clear that it's there to "hold" the "thresh" :)
    – francis
    Apr 4, 2014 at 12:56
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    It looks like a compound word. "thresh" + "hold". So some people pronounce it like that. (Etymologically, it appears that it's thresh + something, but nobody is sure what the something is.) Apr 4, 2014 at 13:03

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If people are pronouncing it that way, it might be one example of the spread of literal pronunciation in the last few decades. This is a trend where, contrary to traditional practice, people are pronouncing certain words as if every syllable needs its proper exposure.

One example is accent which until very recently would be pronounced acc'nt - that is, with the second syllable unstressed, a nothing-syllable, the way we (still) pronounce decent. But nowadays it's more commonly heard as a spondee, which is the technical name for a word with two equally stressed syllables. So it comes out almost as if it's two separate words, ax and ent.

More examples:

Philharmonic. Radio announcers traditionally suppressed the "h" in what is an unstressed syllable: philermonic. But now, as often as not, it's restored: phil-harmonic, as if it's two words.

Tortoise: traditionally tortus, increasingly tortoyse. Because, presumably, it accords with the way it's spelt. So, like accent, it's turning into a word with two equally stressed syllables, a spondee.

Maidstone. The traditional pronunciation, Maidst'n, still holds sway (I think), but increasingly Maid-stone is being heard.

So it might be that thresh-hold is a symptom of the same thing. The word's spelling is derived from two words joined together, but the second "h" is missing, probably because that reflected the standard pronunciation of former times: thresh'ld. But if you restore it in the spoken word, you're actually pronouncing a letter that isn't there.

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    Aw come on, you’ve got to be kidding about the tortoise: it mustn’t rhyme with turquoise but with porpoise.
    – tchrist
    Apr 4, 2014 at 14:04
  • @tchrist: Not the best example, I have heard porpoise pronounced poor poise rather than porpus. Apr 4, 2014 at 14:10
  • Oh, yes. I forgot about porpoise. That too. Apr 4, 2014 at 14:26
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    @TimLymington Those people should be identified before they are allowed to mate …
    – David M
    Apr 4, 2014 at 16:07
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    The word not derived from thresh + hold; it just looks like it is. Apr 4, 2014 at 20:14
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German s is never pronounced as 'sh' it's mostly the 'z' sound in English, except for end of syllable, when it's pronounced 's'. Only ss or ß are always pronounced as 's', whereby ss shortens the vowel while ß does not. Here the ethymology of threshold: Old English þrescold, þærscwold, þerxold, etc., "door-sill, point of entering," a word of uncertain origin and probably much altered by folk-etymology.

The first element probably is related to Old English þrescan (see thresh), either in its current sense of "thresh" or with its original sense of "to tread, trample." The second element has been much transformed in all the Germanic languages, suggesting its literal sense was lost even in ancient times. In English it probably has been altered to conform to hold.

Liberman (Oxford University Press blog, Feb. 11, 2015) revives an old theory that the second element is the Proto-Germanic instrumental suffix *-thlo and the original sense of threshold was a threshing area adjacent to the living area of a house. Cognates of the compound include Old Norse þreskjoldr, Swedish tröskel, Old High German driscufli, German dialectal drischaufel. The figurative use was present in Old English.

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  • In many accents of German (including the one typically taught to English speakers), the letter "s" represents /ʃ/ ("sh") in syllables starting with "st-" and "sp-", except for in some loanwords. E.g. der Stein, das Spiel. This is thought to perhaps be a remnant of an earlier distinction between between laminal and apical sibilants, with the original "s" sounds being apical and the "z" sounds (both the affricate and the fricative that is currently spelled as ss/ß) derived from assibilation of t being laminal.
    – herisson
    Dec 24, 2018 at 22:19
  • The pronunciation of "s" as /ʃ/ when it is written in combination with "t" or "p" is not a dialect thing, but the proper pronunciation in German language. Only some northern German dialects stick to "s" even in this cases. For example, the proper pronunciation of "Stein" is [ʃtaɪ̯n] in IPA.
    – Peter B.
    Apr 28, 2023 at 12:56
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As I would hear and pronounce the word "threshold", its transcription was [ˈtres-(h)old] or even more commonly [ˈtres-(h)olt] due to the last consonant sound being assimilated. Pronouncing this word as [ˈtreʃ-old] (or [ˈtreʃ-olt]) seems (or might it be more appropriate to say "sounds") nonsense for me.

As it was mentioned in some earlier posts and comments to them, "threshold" is derived from the Old English "therscold" or "threscold". And this takes its roots from Old German "Drischaufel" [ˈdrɪʃ-aʊ-fel], which DOES have [ʃ] in its transcription. But Old English is a north-western dialect of Old German, in which most of [ʃ] sounds used to turn into [s] ones. So transcription for "therscold", for sure, was [ˈt(h)ers-kolt].

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  • This would benefit from a citation. Do stick around and take the tour, and welcome to EL&U.
    – livresque
    Feb 14, 2021 at 1:25
  • This website says that sc was always pronounced /ʃ/ in Old English. Why do you think it was pronounced /sk/ in þrescold? Feb 14, 2021 at 1:39
  • @PeterShor, I think it was a compound word of type þres-uold and if s and h are separate, there is no digraph and pronunciation should be /sk/, which transforms into /s(h)/ later. Feb 14, 2021 at 9:57
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There was never a second "h" in threshold. From OED

Etymology: Old English þerscold , -wold , þerxold , -wold , þrexold, -wold = Old Norse þreskjǫldr , - […]The first element is generally identified with thresh v. (? in its original sense ‘to tread, trample’), the forms of which it generally follows; but the second is doubtful, and has in English, as in other [related] languages, undergone many popular transformations.

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This word is derived from old German. In the German alphabet the letter s is pronounced with a "sh" sound, and a double s is pronounced "es". The double s in German is ß and sounds like our English s. That having been said, the word gets pronounced thresh-hold and not thres-hold.

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    Well, what about the s in lesen? That's not pronounced with a "sh" sound. And there are verbs like essen which don't normally use the ß except in some inflections.
    – Robusto
    Nov 9, 2014 at 13:47
  • @plasmasnakeneo that is Hungarian where the letter s is pronounced with a "sh" sound, not German (except in some cases).
    – Peter B.
    Apr 28, 2023 at 13:01

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