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I find it very difficult to pronounce the words fifths (as in four fifths or parallel fifths). The consonant cluster [fθs] is very difficult for me to utter.

I know that in some cases the pronunciation of the plural is different from that of the singular for the sake of simplification of pronunciation. For example (correct me if I am wrong), the word clothes can be pronounced [kloʊz] instead of [kloʊðz], and mouths can be pronounced [maʊz] instead of [maʊðz].

Is there any possible simplification for the pronunciation of fifths or is pronouncing [fifθs] piece of cake for native speakers?

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    I'm a native speaker, but I wouldn't dream of attempting to articulate the "th" in words like fifths and twelfths. To me it's just [fifs]. Mar 14, 2012 at 17:51
  • @FumbleFingers: How about "sixths"? :^) Also, I wonder whether this may be a regional difference?
    – user11752
    Mar 14, 2012 at 18:18
  • "sixths" for me (Inland North US) is almost always [sɪksː] Mar 14, 2012 at 18:44
  • @Mark Bannister: Doubtless there are regional differences even here, but my pronunciation is significantly governed by the fact that I'm a somewhat "lazy" speaker. I have a relatively restricted personal phoneme set, and often don't even attempt tricky consonant sequences. In the case of "sixths" I again ignore the "th" completely - and like Mark Beadles, I just lengthen the final "s" to indicate that it's plural (In the singular, I do pronounce "th", because it's not so awkward there). Mar 14, 2012 at 21:39
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    This is all a surprise for me. I have no problem saying [fifθs] in full, and can't imagine it being pronounced any other way. But I've just realised that I always put an extra sound in sixths - I say [sikstθs] with an extra t. Am I alone in this, or is it quite normal?
    – user16269
    Mar 15, 2012 at 7:22

6 Answers 6

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The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations says:

fifth FIFTH or FITH
If you can pronounce the second f, good for you. But there's nothing slovenly or improper about dropping it and rhyming fifth with pith and myth.

Disclaimer: I do not agree with some of their verdicts of "beastly": the entry goes on to say It is beastly, however, to drop the h and say FIFT or drop the th and say FIF.

Regarding the plural, fifths: the above excerpt applies pretty well here too. /fifθs/ is possible for many native speakers, and /fiθs/ is quite acceptable.

Howjsay.com has both pronunciations in audio (BrE), and forvo.com only has /fifθs/ (in AmE). Forvo also has eight pronunciations of fifth in various contexts (e.g. Fifth Avenue). Check them out if you want to hear them spoken.

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  • Where have all the comments gone?
    – user11752
    Mar 14, 2012 at 17:56
  • Check chat. I think RegDwight deleted them as not constructive.
    – Daniel
    Mar 14, 2012 at 17:57
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    Thanks, Daniel δ. (I deleted my last comment in that series, as it didn't make sense without the others.)
    – user11752
    Mar 14, 2012 at 18:01
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    Thank you for adding the specific answer on the plural, Daniel δ, which is what it seems the questioner was mostly asking for. Mar 14, 2012 at 18:46
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English has some prodigious consonant clusters - look at angsts /æŋksts/, twelfths /twɛlfθs/, sixths /sɪksθs/ - and, yes, an overwhelming proportion of its adult speakers can pronounce them all in careful speech. However, in rapid speech they are reduced.

Some common consonant reductions routinely take place. For example, American dialects tend to remove /j/ from initial clusters, and Caribbean and African-American Vernacular English tend to have more cluster reductions than some other varieties, including θ -> t, f, Ø.

EDIT: So to take your example of 'fifths': you'll find variants that range from [fɪfθs] and [fɪθsː] and [fɪfsː] (all fairly standard) to [fɪfts] [fɪsː] [fɪts] (less standard and perhaps stigmatized).


Clothes is not a plural of a noun clothe. It is an antique plural of the word cloth.

clothes /kloʊz/ means one's garments. He is wearing clothes.
clothes /kloʊðz/ is the 3rd person singular of the verb 'to clothe'. The mother clothes her child.

Mouths is usually pronounced either [maʊθz] or [maʊðz], not [maʊz] in the standard language.

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    "Strengths" is probably the worst. 9 letters, 1 syllable. Mar 14, 2012 at 15:36
  • If we can go across syllables, "breaststroke" is pretty awesome too: /brɛststroʊk/ with /ststr/ Mar 14, 2012 at 16:16
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    But almost all of those complex clusters get reduced. My (broadly) Estuarine pronunciation of those would be /æŋsts/, /twɛɫθs/, /sɪkθs/, /kloʊ(ð)z/, /maʊðz/, /strɛŋθs/ and /brɛstroʊk/. (Though I'd say the E sound is closer to |e| than |ɛ|, which I think of as more like the French pronunciation of café /kæfɛ/, personally.) Mar 14, 2012 at 17:31
  • (Actually, my accent is probably somewhere between RP and Estuarine, rather than "broadly Estuarine", thinking about it.) Mar 14, 2012 at 17:38
  • @OwenBlacker: Standard French café is [kafe]. [kæfɛ] sounds Belgian or Québecois.
    – Jon Purdy
    Mar 14, 2012 at 18:11
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Native AmE speakers routinely pronounce 'fifths' as

[fifs]

or

[fiθs]

(I had thought the latter less common, but now I'm not sure). It is usually only actors or newscasters who will attempt to articulate the entire sequence [fifθs]. See the question about other difficult clusters like -sps.

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    Strangely, the cluster sps is very easy for me :) Mar 14, 2012 at 13:02
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    And I'm not sure which "native speakers" you mean. British English speakers are the other way round: [fiθs] is far more widely-used than [fifs] (almost never) or [fifθs] (can be seen as pedantic and affected). To convert [θ] into [f] as in [fifs] is generally considered illiterate.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 14, 2012 at 13:37
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    @AndrewLeach: I'm not so great at phonology...[f] and [θ] are similar enough fricatives, especially in such a cluster where assimilation is likely to happen. So maybe my comment about "the latter less common" is bad judgement on my part. But the reduction from two to one fricative is accurate (and likely also the -three- adjacent fricatives to one occurs [fifθs] -> [fis]). As to illiterate, I would expand that lower register to 'inarticulate' or 'anything less than formal'.
    – Mitch
    Mar 14, 2012 at 14:20
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    This is not common at all! Most native speakers pronounce it properly. Mar 14, 2012 at 14:28
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    @Mitch: I’m with you. In American English, [fɪfθs] commonly becomes [fɪθs], [fɪfs], or [fɪs(ː)]. A geminate final [s] is used in many such words to approximate a /Cθs/ cluster: [twɛɫs(ː)] for twelfths, or [tɛns(ː)] for tenths. Oddly, tenths doesn’t conflict with tense because the latter often has an epenthetic [t], [tɛn(t)s]. Hooray phonetics!
    – Jon Purdy
    Mar 14, 2012 at 14:45
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In the UK, at least, fifths should be pronounced with the fθs - it is unlike clothes and mouths in this respect.

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  • But is it really a pure θ sound or does it tend to combine with s to sound something between θs and ts? Mar 14, 2012 at 13:22
  • It's normally [fifθs], except where the local accent morphs the θ into a f (typical of Thames Estuary English) or a t (typical of Irish and Irish-influenced accents, for example as spoken in Liverpool).
    – user11752
    Mar 14, 2012 at 15:54
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These pronunciations are not necessarily easy even for native English speakers, but those of us who speak carefully manage, somehow.

The examples you give are common, but not correct, and critical listeners like me tend to shudder a little when they are used.

I may well be in a minority, however - I am in my 60's and went to a grammar school, but speak with a regional (northern) accent. There may be some acceptance by younger persons on the street, but that doesn't make these careless pronunciations correct.

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I'm not certain that you're seeking tips, but if you want to pronounce every letter, I would say fif-fuh-thuh-ss where the fuh-thuh is a fluid motion and eventually becomes ff-thuh.

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