LINGUIST List 13.1959

Mon Jul 22 2002

Sum: Theta/f Variation in Varieties of English

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Kirk Hazen, theta to [f]

Message 1: theta to [f]

Date: Thu, 18 Jul 2002 11:52:59 +0000
From: Kirk Hazen <>
Subject: theta to [f]

I must first thank the respondents to the query. In our internet age, people like the ones below foster comprehensive 
scholarship through their contributions (making the LinguistList a better place to be).

Tara Sanchez
Malcah Yaeger-Dror
David Gil
Betsy McCall
Ella Earp-Lynch
Barbara Horvath
Ghil`ad Zuckermann
Charley Rowe
Annik Foreman
Mark Jones
Stefan Ploch
Julian Bradfield
Ilhan M. Cagri

If I have forgotten a name, I sincerely apologize.

In English, several varieties demonstrate this language variation pattern (LVP). Although there are exceptions, 
more often than not it is socially stigmatized. It is not clear whether this LVP originated once or multiple times. 
This LVP occurs more often word finally and word medially, but is documented word initially.

Foulkes, and Docherty (eds.) (1999) Urban Voices, Arnold.

Horvath, B. 1985. Variation in Australian English. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jones, M. "More on the 'instability' of interdental fricatives". Word July 2002. (Several good references therein).

Martino, J. 1982. "The Phoneme /th/ and its alternative realization as /f/ " WPL: University of Melbourne (8) 35-42.

Trudgill, P. Norwich revisited. English World Wide 9:33-49. (Actually, several people directioned me to scan through 
the greater part of Trudgill's publications).

Wells, JC: Accents of English, volume 2, p. 328-329 (Cambridge UP)

The sample responses are greatly reduced due to the 4000 character limit.
Sample Responses:

'f' passes completely unnoticed among African-Americans in Philly, and among whites and biracial people living in 
AAVE-speaking communities. (All our informants failed the commutation test.) I couldn't say if it's noticed by 
whites who live in other area communities. I *can* say that African-Americans here who have acquired and frequently 
use standard English continue to use 'f' for theta (even in the context of std. English). Our West Philly informants 
claimed not to be able to tell the difference between the two sounds when we asked them. 
Tara Sanchez

This occurs in Singlish, aka Colloquial Singaporean English. . . I'm not aware of any attitudes that are specific to the 
theta-to-f replacement within Singlish.
David Gil
1st - British English classically shows this variation though it is a strong class marker (the use of [f] or [v] instead of 
theta or thorn indicates lower class speech) . . . Varieties of Northern British English also display this. 

2nd - I have never heard the substitution of labial for an interdental in any variety of Western (BC to Montreal) 
Canadian English, regardless of socioeconomic class. However, I believe that some varieties of Maritime Canadian English 
may have the variation, particularly in rural areas.
Ella Earp-Lynch

It is somewhat common in Australian English and passes unnoticed - almost. For instance, the first time I heard it was 
from a Professor of English Language at Sydney University when I arrived in early 70's. However it is probably 
associated with working class; I included it in my survey of Sydney English but found very little.
Barbara Horvath

What is known about this . . . is that from a phonetic point of view it isn't an articulatory-driven change (as the 
articulators are too different) but acoustically driven. [theta] and [f] are hard to distinguish auditorily, but 
in most (not all studies) seem to be equally confusable. The directionality of the change is therefore somewhat 
confusing, and appeals must be made to difficult to quantify concepts like functional load to explain it. In other 
languages which have both sounds (Icelandic, Greek, Spanish) there is very little evidence for any kind of change or 
Mark Jones

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