A recent article about speaking English, accents, and English pronunciation in the Telegraph says linguists predict that the “th” sound will disappear from the English language by 2066. In fact, a study from the University of York which released a report titled “Sounds of the Future” says we can expect a number of accent changes in the way sounds are said, from consonant smushing, where two distinct sounds like “w” and “r” become one sound — to yod dropping, where words like “cute” and “beauty” become “coot” and “booty.” So why all the accent changes and what does it mean for English pronunciation?
While there are a few factors involved, one of them is simply a natural outgrowth of our new, more multicultural society: with so many newcomers struggling to pronounce certain English sounds and as different languages affect one another, we’ll eventually adapt our idea of what is “correct.”
Take the “th” sound, for example. Although it’s second nature to native English speakers, it’s not so easy for those who are learning English as a second language. So, do we resist or accommodate? Likely, the latter. In this case, the “th” sound will be replaced by easier sounds like “f”, “v” and “d.” In other words (so to speak), “think” will be “fink” and “this” and “that” will be “dis” and “dat.”
As speech therapists who specialize in accent reduction, we find many of our clients at Change Your Accent do indeed struggle to correct “th.” The ‘“th” sound is a linguadental sound which involves the tongue and teeth, and the sound can be either voiced or unvoiced — that is, made with the vocal cords vibrating or not. The tip of the tongue touches the back of the upper front teeth while pushing air out between the tongue and the bony ridge behind the upper front teeth. If you think it sounds complicated, you’re right.
For many people who speak English as a second language, if the “th” sound doesn’t exist in their native language, then they will struggle to produce the sound correctly. There are many techniques which can help, though, and a speech therapist who specializes in accent reduction can easily provide effective guidance. And since “th” is in so many of the most frequently used English words — including the, this, that, and with — it is currently a critical sound to pronounce correctly. So if you think you can ignore “th,” well, “fink” again — 2066 is a long way off.