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Courtesy links: https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/123348/what-is-the-correct-pronunciation-of-the

What is the pronunciation of "the"?

The has two pronunciations: "thuh" /ðə/ and "thee" /ði/. While in a few dialects the rules are less well-defined, in most British and American dialects you say "thuh" when it precedes a consonant sound.

  • The(thuh) person /ðə pɜ:sən/
  • The(thuh) university /ðə ju:nɪvɜ:sɪti/

But you say "thee" when it precedes a vowel.

  • The(thee) apple /ði æpl/
  • The(thee) imagination /ði ɪmædʒɪneɪʃn/

Note that "University" is pronounced "Yuniversity", which is started with a consonant sound.

The definite article ‘the’ is normally pronounced /ðə/ before a consonant sound and /ði/ before a vowel sound. Neither of these is a stressed syllable.

However, it also has a ‘stressed’ pronunciation used for emphasis, which is always /ðiː/ no matter what sound should follow it. The vowel here is held longer than in the unstressed version.

The answers above tell when to pronounce "the" as what, but I am curious to know about how English ended up getting multiple pronunciations for "the"?

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    Etymonline has some information on the history of "the", which like many common words is rather complex: it comes from OE þæt (that), influenced by many other, older definite articles, and there's a long history of distinct forms before vowels. You could try the OED for more detailed info.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 18:16

1 Answer 1

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Weak Forms vs Strong Forms

The is not special in this regard, and it has no unique pronunciation history of its own. You just have to know when to use its weak form and when to use its strong form, something we see all over English with many, many other words like this.

The Wikipedia article mentioned in the references given at the end of this post contrasts to Cambridge before a consonant yielding /tə/ with a reduced vowel with to Oxford before a vowel yielding /tu/ with an unreduced one. You get the same thing happening with the when especially stressed or before a vowel. This shows it is a general phenomenon not one peculiar to the.

The definite article the is no different from many other monosyllabic function words.

Content words take prosodic stress in English, but grammatical words usually do not. These common function words are subject to “reduced pronunciations” whenever they occur in unstressed positions. This phenomenon is not unique to English; for example, weak forms also occur in neighboring Dutch.

Many one-syllable function words in English have phonemically distinct weak forms found in unstressed contexts that contrast with their more fully pronounced strong forms. Weak forms have reduced vowels (usually schwa) and sometimes reduced consonants as well. Not all dialects and speakers have the same set of weak forms, and further constraints on where weak forms appear may apply to some of these.

Examples of function words with weak forms include a, an, and, be, been, but, he, her, him, his, just, me, or, she, than, that (as conjunction), the, them, us, we, who, you, your. Weak forms can also be found in some utterances of as, at, for, from, of, to, some, there in some contexts for some speakers, as well as in are, can, could, do, does, had, has, have, my, must, shall, should, was, were, will, would.

What you see happening with the definite article is the same thing that you see happening with the indefinite article, which is also always weak unless emphasized.

  1. Would you care to try a berry?

Only the content words in (1) are unreduced: care, try, and berry. That leaves you with only /jə/ for you, /tə/ for to, etc.

But when stressed for emphasis, the indefinite pronoun a is now pronounced /eɪ/:

  1. I guess I can try a berry, but just one, please.

Before a vowel, of course, a becomes an. There aren’t many other function words that end in vowels, but the is one that does so, and to is another. The reduction to schwa that normally happens before a consonant is less apt to occur before a vowel. So while (3) would have weak forms for to and the:

  1. Try to sleep in the bed.

Here in (4) before the vowels those two words won’t be reduced, or as reduced, for most speakers:

  1. Try to eat the apple.

Think of how when we say You don’t have to shout, the word to is reduced to /tə/, and the word have devoices its final consonant. These are the same phenomenon at work that you see with the in unstressed positions and before consonants.

References

  • The section on “Weak and strong forms of words” in the Wikipedia article on Stress and vowel reduction in English.
  • Geoff Lindsey’s Youtube videos about the pronunciation and prosodic rhythms of weak forms: 1, 2.
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