Theta/f Variation in Varieties of English
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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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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