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https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

How to pronounce 'the' in English.

I am an American English speaker. I just noticed that when the word "the" is before a word starting with a consonant it is pronounced "th uh", but when it is before a word starting with a vowel it is pronounced "th ee". I asked several friends to say the word "the" in sentences in which the word "the" was either followed by a word with a consonant or with a vowel. These people had educations which varied from 11th grade to a Masters level and all of them followed this rule. I had never noticed this before. I, of course, also follow this previously unknown (to me) rule of pronounciation.

June 12, 2017

45 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ally.x
  • 1251

Yup, it is often the case that in our own languages we don't notice grammar, we just use it every day without thinking about it at all :-)

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AshleyK985

Yes, sometimes we learn a word and never think about the grammar, which then leaves room for pronunciation errors.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

I don't follow that rule ;) The difference for me is that "the" is pronounced with the "ee" sound (IPA /i/) when stressed ("stressed" meaning this) and the "uh" sound (IPA /ə/, the "schwa") normally.

The rule you've happened upon is mentioned here however:

In the case of most words with such alternative forms, the weak form is much more common (since it is relatively rare for function words to receive prosodic stress). This is particularly true of the English articles the, a, an, whose strong forms are used within normal sentences only on the rare occasions when definiteness or indefiniteness is being emphasized: Did you find the cat? I found a [eɪ] cat. (i.e. maybe not the one you were referring to). Notice that the weak form of the is typically [ði] before a vowel-initial word (the apple) but [ðə] before a consonant-initial word (the pear), although this distinction is being lost in the United States.

I suppose you may come from a more conservative dialect region than I (or you have unwittingly confined your survey to more conservative speakers).

EDIT: The more examples I come up with, and the more speeds I say things at, the more confusing the situation gets. In fast, slurred speech, it seems like the /i/ pronunciation does crop up, but then it's missing at more normal speed. It also depends on the letter following: "thee igloo" doesn't easily come about even in deliberate speech, but "thee attic" is ok.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SeptimusBones

I agree otherwise, but calling those dialects that have this distinction (like Received Pronunciation, for example) conservative is a bit on the inaccurate side, as technically General American, among others, has changed less during the centuries after the UK/US divide.

And honestly, this is just my specific variety of English, but "thə end" and "thə apple" sound reeaally weird to me.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

The distinction I was making was confined to U.S. English, the most conservative part of which is probably that slice of the Midwest to the east of the cot-caught merger and the east of the Northern Cities shift. It's hard to know whether "being lost" here is like wine-whine merger being lost (i.e. already mostly taken place) or cot-caught merger lost (i.e. both varieties are equally vibrant in their respective regions). "I went to 'thee' end of the road" sounds strange to me. "'Thee' End" on its own is perfectly normal, as both words are stressed.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SeptimusBones

I just wanna point out that there is a difference in vowel length between "/ði/ end"(unstressed pre-vowel) and "/ði:/ end" (stressed).

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

Exceptions only prove the rule. And, I am from the Midwest so our pronounciations tend to be conservative, I agree.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Depends what part of the Midwest. The Great Lakes section is home to perhaps the greatest scenes of chaos in English vowels in half a millennium!

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

Really? I grew up in Chicago, and then moved to Park Ridge, IL and went to the same HS as Hillary Rodham Clinton (do not take this as an endorsement) and I now live in NW Indiana. I also lived in Kansas City MO for 10 years after I left home on my own. I then joined the Army and was stationed in Germany because of my MOS. I went to nursing school and got my RN and BSN in Valparaiso, IN. and have lived here since.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Chicago is actually an epicenter of the sound changes known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (a very common way of referring to which is "the Chicago accent"), so in general, no, you're not from a conservative dialect area. However, every sound shift has its own geographical distribution, and I'm not aware of change to pronunciation of "the" before vowel sounds being tied the Northern Cities Shift.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

I am having a real problem understanding your reply.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Leah57800

For every rule there is an exception too. lol. Like ask someone in theatre to say the theatre. 9/10 will say (th ee) where as most others say (th uh). One reason English proves so hard to master is while there are rules there are also exceptions even native speakers don't realize when they use them.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

English isn't hard to master in comparison to many other languages. At best you can say that languages are hard to master.

French is an official languages of my country, I've been taught French before I was taught English and I've spoken French more often, yet my English is waaaaay better than my French. I didn't even learn any English from school (my level was always higher compared to what was being taught) nor did I ever put any effort into it. If English really is difficult to learn, this wouldn't have been possible.

Pretty much all languages have some difficulties to them. In many more aspects English is very, very easy. Just look at verbs, let's take "to work". It's forms are: work, works, worked, working. Compare that to romance languages...

I know people still dare to come up with excuses like "but there are exceptions". Kk, let's take "to drink": drink, drinks, drank, drunk, drinking. That's still only 2 exceptions that you need to remember... All irregular verbs in English can be listed on...a single page.

Compare that to... http://www.spanishdict.com/conjugate/caber

That's a Spanish verb. Spanish has more irregular verbs too. However, in my opinion Spanish is also a rather easy language, just the verbs are a bit tricky.

English is only difficult for those who haven't learnt an other language (or the "other" language being a language from the same language family as their native tongue). English is easy, the existence of some irregularities isn't enough to classify it as "difficult".

I have yet to come across any language list that qualifies English as "difficult" to learn...

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SeptimusBones

"I didn't even learn any English from school (my level was always higher compared to what was being taught) nor did I ever put any effort into it. If English really is difficult to learn, this wouldn't have been possible."

You have accidentally managed to provide the answer to why you feel English is easier. Since you've learned English mostly outside of school (more organically, some could say), your usage has become stronger. Whereas with French I get the impression that you've been relying on school teaching, which on its own rarely gives as good results as immersive learning. Now, both French and English have their difficulties, not to mention that language-learning is highly subjective, but I still find it very incorrect to say that English isn't difficult just because you learned it easily. I learned English in a very similar manner actually. It's never been hard for me subjectively. But that doesn't mean it cannot be objectively complicated.

Also, like, there's way more irregularities in English than you claim, like, seriously.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Leah57800

That argument can be applied across the board. Take mandarin for example. They don't have changes for verbs. Yet they are considered a harder language for westerners. So it's all subjective. However generally, regardless of any lists, English is considered a hard language to master. You may speak and understand it without fully comprehending all aspects of it or even correctly using grammar and vocabulary.

Also going to guess you're Canadian? If so your exposure to media would explain why it was so easy to learn.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

It can be assessed in quite an objective way. Just like the existence of irregularities in a language doesn't automatically mean it's a difficult languages, some aspect being easy in a language doesn't make it easy to learn. The difficulty of a language is the sum of all it's components.

I'm not Canadian, English isn't my native language (nor French).

However, I did learn English from "media exposure".

Take a look at some indirect reasons why English is easy:

  • Many "new" words referring to new technologies are taken over from English or are similar to English in many languages.

  • You can find about anything in English on the internet. You could call ti "impossible" to not be able to find something to your liking in English.

  • It's relatively easy to find people to train your English with

  • English is used in most fields with an international profile. (I.e. aviation, finance, ICT, ...)

Those alone already make English quite a bit easier to learn compared to many other languages. Let's also take a look at the language itself:

  • The only article is "the" (= extremely easy)

  • Gender-neutral (= extremely easy)

  • "A" vs "an" is easy

  • Verb conjugation: 4 forms / verb (= very easy)

  • Verb conjugation: all exceptions ... fit on a single page (= extremely easy)

  • Plurals: mostly it's just +s and it's not gender dependent but there are exceptions. (= let's say medium difficulty)

  • Nouns often have matching verbs (work - to work; pee - to pee; wrestling - to wrestle; the drive - to drive; the finger - to finger; the hand - to hand; the arm - to arm; the shoulder - to shoulder)

The things most often considered to be difficult in English aren't even really a big deal.

  • Spelling? People will mostly still be able to read it.

  • Pronunciation? People will mostly still be able to understand you.

Even though English isn't my native language, it's still a lot easier for me to understand somebody speaking broken English compared to somebody who struggles with my mother tongue. That's simply because there's little room for confusion in English.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Leah57800

The accessibility is not what determines a languages difficulty. A and an are also articles btw. There is a lot of room for confusion in English. However the fact that it is accessible and is basically THE language for social media and the most popular forms of entertainment are what makes it appear easier.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

The accessibility doesn't determine a language's difficulty but it does affect how easy it is to learn.

Besides, the accessibility isn't even the biggest argument as to why English is easy.

Pick any Germanic or Romance language (except English obviously and maybe also not Spanish and Portugese) and conduct an experiment with people who don't already speak a language of either language group. I can guarantee you without any doubt that in such an experiment the Germanic or Romance language you picked will be more difficult to learn for the participants compared to English.

Edit: another fun fact about my country. Despite French being taught earlier on in school and despite almost 3 times as much time being spent on teaching French, the expected level of proficiency in both is ... equal. Now guess which one has the largest amount of students failing... Yup, French.

The expected level of proficiency being equal might be a stretch though. As in college and university students their proficiency in French is mainly related to work, while for English students are expected to be able to read and interpret academic papers.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Having been learning Russian for quite a long time, and Russian being an easy language with respect to the kinds of things you're bringing up here: gender is trivial in 99+% of cases, only three tenses, trivial conjugation in two of them, no articles at all. Yet Russian is still a really tough language; it has taken and is taking me far longer than my Romance languages. Yes, the cases are hard, but, unlike the slew of tenses and moods in Romance languages, you see them all the time in everything. It's not like the past subjunctive which maybe comes up once per dozens of sentences. What's the reason Russian is so hard? Mostly b/c the vocab is so hard to remember. It seems to me it's a fair chunk harder to remember than Hungarian for me, and Hungarian has its share of humdinger words, too.

I say this not to contest the point that English is a relatively straightforward language grammatically. I think that's true, and I totally think you're right to mention the availability of resources. That really does make English easier to learn. However, I conclude that of the Romance and Germanic bloc, which language would be fastest to learn (barring the availability advantage of English) could be more idiosyncratic than we might suppose. I'm not sure I can assign much evidential value to your observation about your countrymen's difficulty with French when it sounds like you've narrowed yourself down to being from Belgium, Switzerland, or Luxembourg, meaning that most of these countrymen have a Germanic language as their native one.

I agree your Romance/Germanic language thought experiment for native speakers of neither group is interesting, but one really, I think, ought to broaden the picture. Were one to include all languages, then the sole fact that Romance and Germanic languages have both definite and indefinite articles could serve to make them reasonably difficult in global comparison simply because most language don't (this is one of the elements of "Standard Average European"), and, at least for Slavic native speakers, this seemingly most easy of things is quite possibly the hardest, with even the most accomplished still making frequent errors. Also, many languages out there are agglutinative, which tends to correlate with a level of regularity wholly alien to the Romance/Germanic group. Guaraní, for example, has only a handful of irregular verbs, and the irregularities are minor and confined to the present tense.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

I don't know much about Russian but isn't your difficulty with Russian mainly related to it being unfamiliar? Romance languages are quite similar to each other and also have a large amount of vocabulary that's similar to English. Thus, do you think you'd still perceive Russian as more difficult than romance languages if you didn't yet know any romance or Germanic language?

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Certainly, Russian is difficult because it is unfamiliar, but it's certainly not "objectively" more unfamiliar than Hungarian, Turkish, Guaraní, or Swahili, yet I would call all of those easier for me than Russian, despite it being the only one that is Indo-European. However, I have no good reason to presume that my difficulties retaining Russian vocab necessarily apply to others, although they could. Maybe less consonant-heavy words are overall easy for native speakers of many languages to remember. Hard to know. Georgian is the only language I've spent any substantial time on that has seemed harder to me than Russian, and a distinguishing feature of Georgian is its massive consonant clusters, although its verb system is often pointed to as the reason for its difficulty.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

I heard that the hardest language to learn to speak is Thai because of the tonal qualities of the language.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

"All irregular verbs in English can be listed on...a single page."

A web page, certainly. It would have to be a long paper page. There are over 600: https://pasttenses.com/irregular-verbs-list

While not as intimidating as the number some Romance languages can bring to bear, it's not too bad.

The real hurdles when learning English are the arcane pronunciation and the vast number of phrasal verbs- you can break up, down, with, in, out or out of, you can get in, up, over, with, to, up, down, together, by, away and at, or you can hold on, hold up and hold out. The meanings and conjugation of the root verbs may be simple, but the phrasals can have either barely different or wildly opposite meanings.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

Check a source before you quote it.

That webpage includes verbs that don't even show up in frequency lists, verbs that aren't in diaries, verbs from dialects and compound verbs. For example "to gan" which is old English for "to go".

Commonly used irregular verbs easily fit on a single page. I can bet you those cover 99.9% of all conversations and written sources, if not even 99.99%.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

I didn't realise that compound verbs were excluded, as that wasn't mentioned in the post I replied to. I shall endeavour to aim for your newly-positioned goalposts more accurately.

Excluding archaic (but still used, especially in certain dialects) and compound verbs, there are around 200 irregular verbs in common use. What size of page and print are we talking about?

And phrasal verbs remain a nightmare.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

Ok, I've checked the first 5 pages of the link you gave with the 10.000 most commonly used verbs.

Result: 11 out of a 100 verbs on those 5 pages are found within the top 10.000 most commonly used verbs.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

Those goalposts really are on wheels, now.

Focusing on the nebulous 'most commonly used verbs' is a far cry from your original statement of "All irregular verbs in English can be listed on...a single page."

I get the feeling that the criteria will be narrowed with every further example I give.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

It's the common way of listing irregular verbs. Not just in English but also in many other languages.

You're including verbs in extremis: from old English verbs and verbs that aren't even in use anymore to compound verbs.

The only lesson here for me is that I should watch my words better as they can be used against me. People always want to be right, even it includes taking the discussion beyond conventional standards.

Fine you win, not "all" irregular verbs in a literal sense fit on a single sheet. But that's useful / of any value, how? (outside of going to the ends of the earth to win a discussion). But the irregular verbs that actually get taught and are used a noteworthy amount of times, do fit on a single sheet. 99+% of all irregular verbs lists only include these.

In relative terms nothing changes. If you also go in extremis for other languages English will still - by far - be a lot easier when it comes to irregular verbs.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/slamRN

I would like a similar list of German irregular verbs.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

The exception being 'y' which, while classed as a consonant by most English speakers is often a vowel, phonologically speaking.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/scilling

The IPA describes /j/, the sound of English Y in “year”, as a palatal approximant consonant.

June 12, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

In isolation, certainly. I should have said 'sometimes' as Y can be pronounced as /i/ in many English words, often as part of a diphthong- for instance 'the year before last'.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

The "y" in "year" is still IPA /j/. It does represent a diphthong in "my" /maɪ/ and is part of one in "boy" /bɔɪ/. IPA /i/ is not part of any English diphthongs: /oʊ/ /aɪ/ /eɪ/ /aʊ/ /ɔɪ/

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

When you take the time to use RP, I agree. In rapid speech, however, /i:/ and /j/ often elide into something resembling /i/.

Maybe it's just my scummy Northern pronunciation. :)

"/i/ is not part of any English diphthongs:"

I'd probably go for 'any Received Pronunciation or General American English diphthongs' rather than a blanket 'any'.

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

I'd probably go for 'any Received Pronunciation or General American English diphthongs' rather than a blanket 'any'.

Fair enough. Are you saying that for you "year" can be pronounced as the triphthong /iɪə/, or is it just /iə/? Does it contrast with "ear" or do they wind up as homophones?

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mr_Eyl

Ran out of space to reply to your last comment, so I had to post here.

"Are you saying that for you "year" can be pronounced as the triphthong /iɪə/, or is it just /iə/?"

Neither. 'Year' in isolation would, of course, begin with /j/. However, that's irrelevant to either my last comment or the OP. I was referring specifically to /j/ becoming /i/ when following /i:/- that is to say, an initial 'y' after 'the'.

In that instance, I'd say something like ði:iə.

Edit: or possibly ði:iər, if I was trying to sound as much like a Northerner and as little like a middle-class Yorkshire RP tryhard as possible. :)

June 13, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/scilling

I’d still use /j/ when following /iː/ in a stressed “the” in “the year”, but I’m on the other side of the Atlantic.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

@scilling Just to be clear, you're talking about a pretty rare situation right? "Not just a year, 'thee' year" sort of situation? I seem to find pronouncing /ði jɪɚ/ a touch on the difficult side myself and I suspect even when expressly stressing the idea of the "the" it would usually come out as /ðə jɪɚ/.

June 14, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/IApparentlyExist

It usually would depend on emphasis, but it could be pronounced either way. It's like 'Gray' or 'Grey', which are the same word but with different spellings. People would often pronounce it as "thee" and make the vowel sound long to specify what they're trying to say, but the word can be pronounced as both thuh and thee

Sometimes I wonder how English became so irregular that our spelling rules are now all over the place.

November 15, 2017
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