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Subject: Technical Term for a Change of Vowel Sound?
Question: I'm having a hard time identifying the technical term for the change to
the sounding of the ''e'' vowel in the English definite article ''the'' when
the next word begins with a vowel.

When the next word begins with a consonant, people in my area
typically sound the definite article as ''thuh.'' When the next word
begins with a vowel, they typically sound it as ''thee.''

Thuh book
Thee essay
Thuh camel
Thee aardvark

In linguistics, what is the technical term for that change?

Thank you,
Paul Schlicher
Yardley, Pennsylvania, USA

Reply: Well, the name for the phenomenon of having different forms of a word in different
phonological contexts (like before a vowel or a consonant) is <b>allomorphy</b>.

We say there are two <b>allomorphs</b> of the definite article:

&unsp; /ðə/ (before consonants)
&unsp; /ði/ (before vowels).

Interestingly, there are also two allomorphs of the indefinite article:

&unsp; /ə/ (before consonants)
&unsp; /ən/ (before vowels).

Everybody knows this last one because <i>a</i> and <i>an</i> are spelled different.
But <i>the</i> and <i>the</i> aren't spelled different, so this allomorphy in the
definite article often comes as a shock to English speakers.

Notice I didn't say that the the letter "E" was pronounced one way or the other. Writing
is not language; spoken language is language. Writing is just one way we record
speech, and English spelling does not do a good job of recording Modern English.

So don't expect any consistency from it. It's better to think of English words as spoken,
and their spelling as just being a funny heiroglyphic system with no relation to
pronunciation, except occasionally, by accident.
Reply From: John M. Lawler      click here to access email
Date: 15-Dec-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Technical Term for a Change of Vowel Sound?    Marilyn N Silva     (15-Dec-2012)
  2. Re: Technical Term for a Change of Vowel Sound?    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (17-Dec-2012)
  3. Re: Technical Term for a Change of Vowel Sound?    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (16-Dec-2012)

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