Friday, 22 March 2013

Clean teef or clean teeth?

Pronouncing words like tooth as toof or three as free is a well-known and long-established feature of Cockney English, but people all over Britain are now beginning to use ‘f’ for ‘th’, especially adolescent working-class speakers.  How does the change begin, though, and does it pattern in the same way in different parts of the country? Erik Schleef and Michael Ramsammy suggest answers to these questions by comparing young people’s speech in London, England, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where this pronunciation is a more recent phenomenon.

Overall, young people in Edinburgh used ‘f’ pronunciations just as often as their counterparts in London. In Edinburgh, though – and not in London – ‘f’ was more frequent in words like maths, where it comes at the end of a syllable, before another consonant. It was less frequent where it is followed by a vowel, in words like thin. Schleef and Ramsammy suggest that these patterns point to the origins of the sound change. The sounds ‘f’ and ‘th’ share acoustic properties, and this can make it difficult for listeners to tell them apart in fast speech, especially in words like maths, when the following consonant makes them less perceptible.

Confusion of the two sounds may well explain the origin of the sound change in London too, but here there has been plenty of time for the use of ‘f’ for ‘th’ to spread to new phonetic contexts, not just the context where they are most easily confused.

Instead, young people in London used ‘f’ for ‘th’ more often in morphologically complex words containing more than one form: words like pathway (path plus way) or months (month plus plural –s). What seems to be happening, Schleef and Ramsammy point out, is that as the change becomes well-established in a variety of English the variation becomes increasingly integrated into grammatical word structure. It can also acquire a social function: in London male speakers use ‘f’ more often than female speakers, whereas in Edinburgh the variation is too new to be available for marking gendered ways of speaking.

Will the change follow the same processes in Edinburgh speech as it has in London, once it becomes more established, losing the phonetic patterning and becoming integrated into word structure instead? Not necessarily. Schleef and Ramsammy explain that the sound system in which the change is embedded differs in the two cities. In Edinburgh words like thing and think are often pronounced with an initial ‘h’. Also, a glottal stop is used for ‘th’ in Edinburgh, but only rarely in London. There is more overall variation, then, in Edinburgh than there is in London, and this makes it impossible to predict the future of this sound change.

What is clear, though, is that comparing social and linguistic influences on a sound change in different locations can help us understand how a change begins and how it becomes part of the language system.

You can hear sound clips of young people from London using this feature at our English Language Teaching Resources website 

Schleef, Erik and Ramsammy, Michael (2013) Labiodental fronting of /θ/ in London and Edinburgh: a cross-dialectal study. English Language and Linguistics 17 (1): 25-54.

doi: 10.1017/S1360674312000317

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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