The word lithe seems to be pronounced just like the adjective live (as in alive), as far as I can tell from listening to this sound sample.

Had I not heard it, I would have expected it to be pronounced like light.

Am I hearing it correctly, and could you shed any information on this “special” pronunciation?

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    The final consonant in lithe is a voiced dental fricative [ð], not a voiced labiodental fricative [v]. – phenry Jul 16 '14 at 17:52
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    i.e. with your tongue, and not the bottom lip, between your teeth. – seismatica Jul 16 '14 at 17:53
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    Don't mean to digress but up to know I'd always thought that it was pronounced like "lithium" without the "ium". Thank god I've never used it in public! Also, is it just me or does the correct pronunciation sound kinda icky? – seismatica Jul 16 '14 at 17:55
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    And note that it sounds like the adjective live /layv/, and not the verb live /lɪv/. – John Lawler Jul 16 '14 at 17:56
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    With few exceptions, words ending in THE (as opposed to TH) are pronounced with the voiced /ð/. This is often a result of verbal voicing: bath ~ bathe, mouth ~ mouth(e), loath ~ loathe, sheath ~ sheathe, wreath ~ wreathe, breath ~ breathe, teeth ~ teethe, lath ~ lathe, cloth ~ clothe, sooth ~ soothe. The second one in these pairs is a verb and is pronounced /ð/. Similar things happen with /s ~ z/ but they're not spelled differently: use (n) /yus/ ~ use (v) /yuz/; house (n) /haws/ ~ house (v) /hawz/. – John Lawler Jul 16 '14 at 18:07

If someone was expecting to hear a word pronounced in the same way as light - in other words as /laɪt/, and they then heard this word, they may very well mishear it.

The word is actually /laɪð/. The sound you hear at the end there is a voiced fricative, just like the sound /v/, but it is a dental fricative. We make it with our tongues touching the back of our teeth. It is the same sound we hear at the beginning of the word then. This sound is most frequently heard at the beginning of 'function words', the types of word you would study in grammar lessons:

  • this, that, these, those, them, their ...

Sometimes, however, we hear it in lexical words (the kinds of words we often look up in a dictionary). At the ends of lexical words a particularly common spelling for this sound is -the.

As at least one commenter has said, there is often an alternation between a noun of the same root ending in -th, pronounced with the unvoiced dental fricative, /θ/ ( - the sound at the beginning of the word think), and a verb ending in -the, pronounced with its voiced counterpart /ð/. Compare the nouns:

  • wreath /ri:θ/, sheath /ʃi:θ/

and the verbs:

  • wreathe /ri:ð/, sheathe /ʃi:ð/

However, as will be seen from the Original Poster's question, this ending occurs with other parts of speech too. The target word lithe, with which we are currently concerned, is an adjective. We can also find nouns such as swathe/sweɪð/.

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    Rhymes with blithe, scythe, tithe, and writhe — amongst others. – tchrist Jul 21 '14 at 20:21
  • Don't forget that non-native speakers are not the only ones to get intradentals and labiodentals mixed up: to many a speaker of Estuary or Cockney English, lithe and live are homonyms, just like thought and fought or wreath and reef are. They are tricksters, these fricatives. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '14 at 20:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You mean homophonies or phonohomies or something like that. :) – tchrist Jul 21 '14 at 20:38
  • @tchrist Errr, yes. Exactly. I mean homophones. Homonyms they are not. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '14 at 20:39
  • +1 Great, thank you, happy to mark this as the answer. (I was wondering what I would have to do w/ a question that had several comments which answered my question, but no formal answer.) – user40248 Jul 21 '14 at 22:04

According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, lithe is usually pronounced as laɪð, and less commonly as laɪθ (in American English).

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