Judging from the spelling I always thought Theresa was pronounced with an interdental fricative. On the German news I often heard it pronounced with a /t/ as initial consonant. I thought this was due to the fact that German does not have interdental fricatives which often results in Germans replacings those with plosives (/t/ or /d/) or sometimes with the dental fricatives /s/ or /z/. The other day, however, I watched BBC World News and heard the prime minister's name Theresa May being pronounced with the plosive /t/. On the German Wikipedia page for Theresa May the IPA pronunciation is also given with the plosive sound.

Is there any reason for this pronunciation and, if so, are there other exceptions where the th-spelling is pronounced with a plosive instead of with the usual interdental fricatives?

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    Yes, there are other exceptions: Thomas, Thames, Thailand, thyme – Uwe Jan 17 '17 at 13:34
  • @Uwe "The origin of the name 'Thames' is not fully known. Before the Romans came it was called 'Tems' but the Romans latinised it and called it 'Tamesis'. Various names have appeared since then. The name 'Tamyse' was popular in Anglo-Saxon times but it has been known as 'Thames' since c.1600." Feb 20, 2004 "Conflicting Origins of the Name of the River Thames" - Wesley Johnston, www.wwjohnston.net/wj/thames.htm (src: Google) – Kris Jan 7 '18 at 13:08
  • Let's add portmoneaus, blends and compounds, where the first word ends with t and the other begins with h naturally; pothead, shithole, sainthood etc. – SF. Jan 7 '18 at 19:44

There are a number of other words or names where "th" corresponds to /t/. Uwe listed some in a comment: Thomas, Thames, Thailand, thyme.

The digraph "th" was originally used in Latin to transliterate Greek θ. But in the languages that descended from Latin, "th" became identical in sound to "t". This led to some interchange of "t" and "th" as spellings for /t/ in languages that descended from Latin, such as French, or that were otherwise influenced by Latin spelling, such as German.

The "th" digraph came to be used in English for the native sound /θ/ (and its voiced counterpart /ð/). But English also has many loanwords from Latin, French or even German that had "th" = /t/. These have been treated in different ways.

  • In some cases, English retains the /t/, as in "Theresa" (corresponding to Spanish "Teresa" or French "Thérèse", both with /t/).

  • In other cases, it has been replaced with /θ/ due to spelling-pronunciation, as in "author" from a variant spelling of French autor (from Latin auctor).

  • In a few cases, the sound represented by "th" is variable and can be /t/ or /θ/ depending on the speaker or on the person bearing the name. The word Neanderthal, from German, is etymologically just a spelling variant of Neandertal, so some people pronounce it with /t/. But a spelling-pronunciation with /θ/ is more common. The name Anthony, from Latin Antonius, is traditionally pronounced with /t/ in British English, but often pronounced with /θ/ in American English. The usual modern attitude is that the "correct" pronunciation of a name is the pronunciation used by the specific person being referenced (with some allowances for differences in phonetic inventory, phonotactics and allophony between accents).

  • What do you mean "th" became identical in sound to "t"; "th" wasn't a Latin phoneme, so it was probably always pronounced as "t" by everybody except the educated class who knew Greek, in the same way that Goethe is often pronounced as Gerta in English. – Peter Shor Jan 7 '18 at 13:52
  • @PeterShor: We might infer that the situation was as you suggested in your comment, but I think we don't know enough about Latin speakers' pronunciation to say for sure, unlike with the modern Romance languages. I might edit to adjust the wording in this answer – sumelic Jan 7 '18 at 17:43
  • We certainly can't know for sure (unless there's some comment in a Latin text about plebeians mispronouncing "th"). I'm just guessing from analogy to the situation today. – Peter Shor Jan 7 '18 at 20:41

The name is actually Teresa. Theresa is just a variant spelling that somehow kept the original pronunciation.


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    Since the etymology of the name is unknown, there is no way to know for sure whether the name is “actually” Teresa or Theresa, and which is the variant spelling. The earliest known attested forms, from around the fourth and fifth centuries, are generally spelt with an h, and the most likely hypothesis is that the name is based on Greek θέρος ‘summer’ or θερίζω ‘to harvest’, or perhaps on the island of Θηρασία. This would indicate that Teresa is a later variant; but we don’t know for sure. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '18 at 12:27

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