It might be a strange question, but I, as a non-native speaker (Pakistani), have listened to English pronunciations by my native people who have over time developed their own pronunciations.

So, I heard the word "THUG" with the pronunciation "T" + "HUG" (T, as in tyre, tank, tip, etc). But I later found out that the "TH" in thug is pronounced like the th in thought, thin, etc.

Since then, I am trying to think whether the pronunciations of TH as T+H are acceptable anywhere else or not? Is there such a word?


10 Answers 10


In general, the "t" and "h" in "th" are only pronounced on their own when they appear in English words that originated as compound words (such as rat-hole becoming "rathole", foot-hill becoming "foothill", and light-house becoming "lighthouse"). In each of these cases "th" is not a single sound, but rather two sounds, "t" and "h".

Instead, "th" is almost universally (in English, that is) used as a digraph (which means that both the 't' and the 'h' combine to form a single sound; in other words, you could replace the "th" with some symbol without losing meaning). Basically, if you wanted to, you could consider "th" its own letter.

The primary ways "th" is used in English are:
As a voiceless dental fricative, such as in "thing", "thug", "throw", or "math".
As a voiced dental fricative, such as in "this", "then", "soothe", "lithe", "bathe", or "smooth" (which a long time ago used to be spelled "smoothe").

While those are the primary uses of "th", there are some instances where "th" is used to import foreign words, that have sounds that most English speakers can't differentiate/can't pronounce (for example, I think the word "Thailand" is written with a "Th" because the "t" sound is supposed to be an aspirated consonant, but I can't make or understand the difference between that and non-aspirated sounds, so I'm not the best judge for that); typically we'll take those sounds and ignore aspiration, or pronounce them in one of the other two ways I mentioned.

It may also interest you to look at the letter thorn Þ, which was used in written English several-hundred years ago. It was replaced by "th" as German printing presses did not come with the symbol, and adding it in would have been too costly.

  • 27
    There's also the name Thomas... :) Mar 1, 2016 at 10:56
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    Lithe isn't voiceless? I guess I've been mispronouncing it. Lathe is voiced, for sure, but lithe I've always used a voiceless pronunciation.
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 1, 2016 at 14:32
  • 3
    @CGCampbell I've heard lithe pronounced both ways, by native speakers, no less. Perhaps there are even speakers who pronounce it both ways depending on the context. I imagine that it's not the only such word.
    – phoog
    Mar 1, 2016 at 15:41
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    @David That’s because nearly all phonetic transcriptions in dictionaries and such places are semi-phonemic. There is no phonemic distinction between /t/ and /tʰ/ in English (as there is in Thai and Hindi, for instance), so there’s no reason to constantly write /tʰ/ in phonetics; /t/ is simpler and easier to read and also matches orthography. Both [t] and [tʰ] do exist phonetically in English, though: top is [tʰɒp(ʰ)], while stop is [stɒp(ʰ)]. If you record stop and cut out the sibilant at the beginning, you’re left with [tɒp(ʰ)], which sounds very unnatural to English-speakers. Mar 1, 2016 at 18:15
  • 4
    @Konrad Another way to make the distinction clearer is to find a minimal pair where on one hand you have /sC/ (C = any stop consonant) in the same syllable, and on the other you have /s. C/ in different syllables, i.e., one syllable ending in /s/ and the following beginning in /C/. In the latter case, the stop is initial and therefore aspirated; in the former, it’s not. That’s how we tell “Hannah, stop” and “Hannah’s top” apart. Try saying those two and listen for the difference. Mar 2, 2016 at 13:45

Words such as rathole, carthorse and pithead are pronounced rat hole, cart horse and pit head.

  • 9
    I think most (if not all) examples will be compound words, where the first word ended in a "t" and the second began in an "h." "Meathead" was the example I thought of.
    – Nathan K
    Mar 1, 2016 at 14:17
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    @NathanK Immediately upon reading the question, I thought of an example similar to yours, but notably more vulgar.
    – recognizer
    Mar 1, 2016 at 15:26
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    First word to mind for me was anthill
    – asfallows
    Mar 1, 2016 at 20:25
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    Pithead is usually 'pith-head', meaning someone without any brains in their skull, or as a version of 'pisshead'. Never heard of or seen 'pit-head' as a word.
    – user2754
    Mar 2, 2016 at 8:17
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    I'm English and have never heard pithead as pith head. Pithead is the top of the mine shaft in a colliery merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pithead
    – mmmmmm
    Mar 2, 2016 at 10:39

It's late winter in Minnesota. The word that slams to mind is "pothole."

  • 23
    The land of two seasons: "winter" and "roadwork"...
    – Floris
    Mar 2, 2016 at 1:52

The word apartheid is commonly pronounced in American English with the th split, like apart-hide or sometimes apart-hade. The word is imported from Afrikaans, so not a great example of an English word, but it is nevertheless used in English.


Thug is a derived word(from India-Pakistan) and its modified english pronunciation was defined by its use by the British. The hindi letter used to pronounce thug is and its hindi pronunciation is T+H(the one you have been using). Having such a equivocal existence is rare and hence there are not many such words that come to mind.

The words mentioned (rathole, carthorse, etc.) do not have quite the same T+H sound as in thug since their pronunciation is broken after t and before h. Moreover, the Indo-Pak T+H sound is a wee bit heavier/thicker than that.

However, I have heard the word Thai being pronounced as t-hie and I have been calling it more like thigh all my life - but it is a proper noun and may be just a regional/colloquial thing.


Any compound word where the first part ends in t and the second part starts with h, including:

  • adulthood
  • anthill
  • courthouse
  • fathead
  • firsthand
  • foothill
  • foothold
  • goatherd
  • hothead
  • hothouse
  • knighthood
  • knothole
  • lightheaded
  • lighthouse
  • masthead
  • nighthawk
  • nuthatch
  • outhouse
  • parenthood
  • penthouse
  • pilothouse
  • porthole
  • posthaste
  • potholder
  • pothole
  • pothook
  • priesthood
  • sainthood
  • shorthand
  • shorthorn
  • sweetheart
  • warthog

Apparently there are no Londoners here, otherwise someone would have mentioned the river Thames already. Also Thyme (the herb) doesn't feature a ð sound.

The Wikipedia mentions some other of those specific Roman-based words, too.

  • 13
    The "h" is silent in those words, which doesn't answer the question, which specifically asked for words where a t and h are next to each other and both are voiced separately. Mar 1, 2016 at 19:24
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    @Boldewyn - Perhaps the Londoners here didn't feel as pressured into answering as you apparantly did :) More importantly though, your answer doesn't answer the OP's question. The Thames is not pronounced as 't-hems' I take it, or the herb as 't-hyme'?
    – Terah
    Mar 1, 2016 at 19:44
  • 3
    Thames and thyme (and Thomas) can indeed be spoken as aspirated consonants in some regions, so the h is not universally vestigial. That is not the same as the separate sounds you see in compound words like pothead, though (even though in some dialects the 'h' in the compound words disappears, too: pot'ole), nor is it the same as the th in Hindi thug. Mar 1, 2016 at 20:47
  • @DewiMorgan: The aspirated consonant [tʰ] and the unaspirated [t] are allophones for /t/ in English, so the aspiration is not evidence that the "h" is pronounced. In other words, Thames is still /tɛmz/ even though the /t/ is pronounced [tʰ]. I expect that your "pot'ole" example is pronounced something like [ˈpɑʔtˌəʊl] or [ˈpɑʔˌəʊl], which suggests to me that we are just talking about another allophone of /t/ here. The question is really about /t/ vs /th/, not [t] vs [tʰ]. Mar 2, 2016 at 18:53

Some non-compounds spelled th and pronounced /th/ rather than /θ/ are: Thomas, thyme, Thailand, and, sometimes, Neanderthal.

Many natives might tell you that the h is unpronounced—even though when they say the words, they pronounce it clearly. In fact, written t is normally pronounced /th/ even though the h is not written, and most natives don't notice. So, time and thyme are both pronounced the same: /thaɪm/, with the /h/. You can sometimes bring the /h/ to natives' attention by having them hold their hand in front of their mouth as they speak a word containing t, like tell or time or Thomas. The reason they don't notice the /h/ is that in English, /t/ and /th/ are allophones. Native speakers usually don't perceive the /h/ because they hear it as part of the /t/. The /h/ is normally omitted only when /t/ ends a consonant cluster, as in stem. The writing includes no convention for indicating the difference, and indeed most natives are unaware of the difference. The difference usually becomes perceptible to natives only in compound words. For example, if you pronounce posthorn without the /h/, it will sound wrong.

The people who pronounce Neanderthal with /th/ rather than /θ/ are mostly anthropologists trying to reflect the original German—in effect, maintaining it as a German word used in English sentences. As native English speakers, though, when they attempt this, they can't help but aspirate the /t/. Most people, however, fully Anglicize the word and pronounce the th as /θ/.

  • isn't it more correct to say that it's [tʰ], not /th/? just because it's aspirated doesn't mean there's an actual /h/ sound there
    – mic
    Oct 1, 2017 at 0:58
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    @user165604 There are various notations for various levels of fussiness. I haven't tried this with the words listed above, but if you record a word like "tack" and start the tape just after the "t", it will sound exactly like "hack". So, yes, there really is an actual /h/ sound in there. (Yes, tape. I did this many years ago.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 1, 2017 at 11:34

In south London is a borough called "Streatham", which is pronounced "stret" + "ham".


Another example: Thom Yorke, the singer for Radiohead, pronounces his name "Tom".

  • 3
    This is not the pronunciation under discussion.
    – Pranab
    Mar 3, 2016 at 10:56
  • 2
    @Pranab Actually, it is. See my answer for the surprising details.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Mar 6, 2016 at 4:59

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