A thorn in the thide of thpeech?


Someone over on the forum at How-To-Learn-Any-Language had the following query about the thorn, or ‘th’ sound in Germanic and other European language families:

It’s interesting that Gothic had this sound but of the Germanic languages, only English and Icelandic have this now. Greek and Spanish have it also. What’s the connection, and why the other languages haven’t this sound more?

I found this query very interesting so I wrote the following response.

There was a ‘th’ to ‘d’ shift in German. Martin Luther should have actually been called ‘Luder’, but as that was not befitting to a theologian of his stature, his ancestors didn’t join in that sound-shift. There was an opt-out clause if the result gave you a rude sounding name, you see. That is probably why it got retained just about everywhere in Icelandic and English, come to think of it…

In all honesty, I think the reason it was one of the first to be dropped in languages was that the sound is not economical. It needs the tongue to move further forward in the mouth than other consonants. Also ‘th’ in English is problematic – some people voice it in words that other people would leave it unvoiced. The British, I mean those of us who can be bovvered to make a ‘th’ sound at all, say ‘with’ with a voiced ‘th’. Americans can often be heard to pronounce the same word with an unvoiced ‘th’. And then there is the problem that within England alone those who find ‘th’ a trouble to pronounce do default to a variety of replacement letters. I heard people defaulting ‘th’ to ‘d’, in accordance with Old Germanic tradition, and was very proud of them. But many default ‘th’ unvoiced to ‘f’, not ‘t’. The Irish and I think Liverpool defaults the unvoiced sound to ‘t’, but Savvern Inglish, especially Saaf Landen, does an ‘f’ for unvoiced and by analogy a ‘v’ for voiced ‘th’. (And we still don’t have our own Wikipedia language, which is a bleedin disgrace, Jimbo moy san).

Let me give an example – some years back when regulation of the high-cost information telephone lines was just getting under way, adverts for info lines had to show you the country you would be ringing to. One advert said “Calls terminate in Tuvalu”. One of my colleagues speaking Saaf Landen read this out, and another one laughed, thinking he had said that the calls terminated “into the loo”, that is, the toilet.

(No disrespect intended to that island nation. In fact, I have a .tv domain myself. Pluggy-pluggy-plug.)

The argument that ‘th’ is dropped because it is less economical to pronounce can be backed up by looking at how the equivalent to ‘th’ unvoiced aspirate in the dental group in the other groups are fairing. In the labial group (no porn intended) the ‘f’ is dropped from most Slavic languages, except in loan words. Its popularity in Germanic is all down to the First Sound Shift, a linguistic event that is grimm to look into. The ‘ch’ in the velar group as in ‘Loch’ is barely used in English and most Germanic languages have demoted it to simple h in many cases, and of course even simple ‘h’ is regularly dropped in many English dialects. ‘sh’ in the sibilant group has been reduced or dropped in a number of languages also. It is not easy to find in Greek, for instance. Unvoiced aspirates have a hard time in the human mouth, you can’t be in denial about it. Even the well-worn joke about denial being not just a river in Africa refers back to what I’m talking about.

The one conundrum is why Castillian Spanish, in its European version, actually prought in a ‘th’ sound, which we have admitted is a hard one to keep going, into the language, admittedly though not in the same place, but as a lisped version of ‘c’ and ‘z’. One benefit it has there, of course, is to facilitate diferenciacion between ‘c/z’ and ‘s’which is not audible in Latin American Spanish. I have no idea what impact that has on the frecuencia of espelling miztakes in that part of the world, perhaps someone here can enlighten me. One answer I heard was that it was a feature of aristocratic speech to lisp, and that people copied it to show how genteel (as in ‘inbred’) they were. I do give this theory some credence as there are parallels elsewhere – it puts me in mind of when the court was at St Petersburg and it became fashionable to adapt the style of that court, which in addition to ‘okanie’ happened to include an inability to roll one’s ‘r’s for the camera, and also the same lisp on ‘s’. Today there is a tendency in so-called “World Spanish” to lose the ‘th’, and the Russian courtly lisp was put paid to rather more rapidly by the revolutsia. Anyone going around talking in courtly accents during that epic upheaval would be taking an unnethethary rithk.

In English the lisp became associated in the twentieth century and possibly earlier with camp speech, with all the TV sitcoms which showed stereotyped homosexuals having them lisping, which wasn’t very nice for people who lisped because they couldn’t help it, although it may well be some new friendships started that way for some people, who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to them.

In case you are wondering on what basis I am positing that lisping only became relatively recently associated with homosexual speech in English, let me tell you what evidence I have – if you look up the popular hymn “O worship the King, all glorious above” by Sir Robert Grant (1785-1838) you will find that the original hymn has the following final verse:

“O measureless Might! Ineffable Love!
While angels delight to hymn thee above,
The humber creation, though feeble their lays,
With true adoration shall lisp to thy praise.”

In post-war hymnals this was often replaced with “… sing to thy praise”. Interesting that they felt no need to update the archaic “thy” but couldn’t handle any more the idea of “lisping” at God! You will find both versions in abundance in search engines, as well as an entirely modernised “you/your” version with a theologically modified version of the last verse here.

In Germany today there seems to be a tremendous amount of lisping going on, and nobody feels that they need to draw attention to it, neither does it seem to go hand in hand with campness, so it seems perfectly in Ordnung to hear “Sie sind so sauer” as if they were saying in English “Thee thinned though thou-a”, and not a rainbow flag or an earring in sight. So, maybe the sound is actually returning to German, just in a different place. As long as no-one calls Martin Luther “Martin Loser” when the trend inevitably reverses again in the future, then why not?

About David J. James

53 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 18/05/2010, in Blog only, Languages and Linguistics, My posts on other fora/blogs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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