You probably know that 'the' can be pronounced two ways, depending on the word that follows it. But do you really understand why? In this post you will learn why, and also learn a deeper lesson in connective speech.
ðə & ðiː
If you’ve been studying English for a while, you’ve probably already learned that ‘the’ is pronounced ðə (thuh) when followed by a consonant, and ðiː (thi) when followed by a vowel. So, here’s a question for you. Take a moment to consider the answer before reading on.
Q. In the phrase ‘The uniform was dirty’ would a native typically use ðə or ðiː?
The answer to the question is ðə (thuh). If, like most students, you got this question wrong, the reason is that you are thinking in terms of spelling, when you should be thinking in terms of sound. The word ‘uniform’ begins with the letter ‘u’, which is one of the vowels in the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). However, the sound at the beginning of ‘uniform’ is NOT a vowel sound; it is a consonant sound: j (y). In the International Phonetic Alphabet ‘uniform’ is written juːnɪfɔːm.
OK, here’s another question. Again, think carefully about it before reading on.
Q. In the phrase 'The Uber is here’ would a native typically use ðə or ðiː?
This time the answer is ðiː. 'Uber' is pronounced uːbə (oobuh). It begins with a vowel sound (uː) whereas 'uniform' begins with a consonant sound (j).
The key point is that it is the sound that is important, not the spelling. There is no 'rule' dictating when you must use ðə or ðiː; this is just how natives naturally speak.
You see, phrases consist of syllables: vowel sounds connected (or divided) by consonant sounds. We only put two or more vowel sounds together without a consonant between them when we're making diphthongs and triphthongs.
For example, in the word 'though' we have two vowel sounds, ə+ʊ, stuck together in one syllable to make the diphthong əʊ, and in 'fire' we have three vowel sounds, ʌ+ɪ+ə, stuck together in one syllable to make the triphthong ʌɪə.
Whenever we connect two syllables (such as when transitioning from one word to another) there MUST be a consonant sound between them. So, when we say 'the uniform' using ðə (thuh) it sounds OK as there is a consonant sound, j (y), at the beginning of 'uniform'. However, if we said ðəuːbə (thuh-oobuh) it would sound weird, as there is no consonant. (It would sound like saying 'though' followed by the meaningless sound 'buh'.)
So, here's another question for. Take a minute to think about it before reading on.
Q. How does using ðɪ instead of ðə solve the problem of the missing consonant in the phrase 'The Uber is here'?
The answer should become clear if you repeat the phrase to yourself out-loud.
If you say 'The Uber' (ðɪ-uːbə) out-loud, all in one breath, without pausing between the words, you should notice that the consonant sound j (y) appears, as if by magic, between 'the' and 'Uber'. It sounds like thi-yooba. Linguists call this 'glide'. In effect, saying iː-uː (i-oo) is phonetically identical to saying juː (yoo).
The need for consonant sounds between syllables explains several quirks of English pronunciation. For example, this is why we have 'a' and 'an'. So, let's end with another question.
Q. When saying 'I need something to eat', what consonant sound naturally occurs between 'to' and 'eat'?
If you think you know the answer leave a comment below.
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