The definite article is mostly pronounced 'thuh' before a noun beginning with a consonant (thuh chair), and 'thee' in front of a noun beginning with a vowel (thee apple).

Question 1: what is the name of this pronunciation change?

Question 2: many news and sports broadcasters (noticed especially on Irish television) use 'thuh' and 'thee' randomly, with no regard to the following word. Where did this usage originate?

  • 4
    Some people use "thee" for emphasis. Example: "It is thee best"! or "It is thee most single greatest thing. – Othya May 9 '16 at 16:24
  • Thanks Othya, I think you are right. But the broadcasters I mention are using 'thee' where it is needed neither for articulation nor for emphasis. – P Kinsella May 9 '16 at 17:17
  • 4
    The name of the change is allomorphy, which means 'having alternate forms'; it's the same phenomenon as the indefinite article being pronounced an before a vowel sound, but a before a consonant sound. However, since the two allomorphs of the are spelled the same, most native speakers don't know it has two different pronunciations: /ði/ before vowels, and /ðə/ before consonants.. – John Lawler May 9 '16 at 18:20
  • the indefinite article 'a', before a word starting with a consonant sound, can also be emphasized, pronouncing it 'ei'. – user58319 Dec 3 '18 at 14:10

The reason to have two different pronunciations is to better differentiate the words in normal speech, where there are no pauses between words.

Try saying "the only" quickly a few times.

If you use "thuh", then the sound of the two words runs into each other, and unless you introduce a pause, you get something like "thonly". Pardon what?

If you use "thee only", then the words remain distinct with no pause.

Where there is a consonant at the start of the second word, then this differentiates the words, so the words remain distinct (like in "the tap")

So then, why not use "thee" all the time? I suspect that this is down to muscle movement. Saying "thuh" requires slightly less muscle movement than "thee" and so evolved as the most natural form where "thee" was not needed.

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