There Are Two "Th" Sounds. Here's The Difference. 

A Blog About Language
June 10 2014 3:39 PM

There Are Two "Th" Sounds. Here's The Difference. 

screen_shot_20140610_at_3.40.34_am

Put your hand on your throat and say thing, elongating the th sound. Now do the same with then. Notice a difference? In the short video below, YouTuber Tom Scott explains how your vocal cords vibrate when you produce certain sounds, such as the th in then or there, but don't when producing others, such as the th in thing or thick.

It's the same contrast with S and Z, or F and V. That is, both S and F lack this buzzy vibration (they're voiceless), while Z and V have it (they're voiced). Unless, incidentally, you're whispering—which is why, when you have laryngitis and your vocal cords are inflamed, you can only whisper.

Advertisement

If you're not too squeamish, you can also watch this fascinating—but decidedly odd-looking—video of the vocal cords moving during various sounds, produced by snaking a flexible camera and small light down someone's throat:

The vocal cords—more properly called vocal folds, since they're really folds of membrane, not cords like on a guitar—produce sound by constricting into a small opening, through which the air passing out from your lungs creates a rapid vibration. It's the same effect that enables sound from the reed of a clarinet or the whistle from a blade of grass.

Although we're not consciously aware of what exactly our vocal cords are doing while we speak, whether or not they're vibrating at any given moment has lots of implications for the English language. For example, it can make the difference between a noun, such as house, and a verb, such as to houseIt also accounts for why the S in dogs sounds like /z/, but the S in cats sounds like /s/, which is something that even young children are sensitive to.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?