Q: A few years ago, the host at a bed and breakfast in Ireland introduced my wife and me to his new puppy, “Artur.” It took me a bit to realize that the dog’s name was “Arthur.” I assume that pronouncing “th” as “t” is historical, though I still hear it from the Irish and Scots. What’s the history?
A: You’re right in suggesting that the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English dialects may be an obsolete usage that was once common.
In fact, “th” used to be simply “t,” and pronounced that way, in older spellings of “authentic,” “orthography,” “theater,” “theme,” “theology,” and “throne,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the “t” was once “th” in “treacle” and “treasure.”
In the Middle Ages, the name “Arthur” could be spelled with “th” or only “t,” suggesting that it may have been pronounced both ways. In early versions of the Arthurian legends, for example, King Arthur’s name is spelled with “t” or “th” or runic letters representing the “th” sound.
Even today, it’s standard in the US and the UK to pronounce the “th” as “t” in “Theresa,” “Thomas,” “Thompson,” and “thyme.” And the “th” of “Thames” is pronounced with a “t” in England and Canada, though the river in Connecticut is generally pronounced with a “th.”
The “th” we’re talking about is called a digraph, by the way, a combination of two letters that represent one sound (like the “ch” in “child” or the “sh” in “shoe”).
However, not all “th” combinations are digraphs. The two letters also appear together in some compounds that include words ending in “t” and beginning with “h,” such as “foothill,” “outhouse,” and “knighthood.” In such compounds, the “t” and “h” are pronounced as separate letters. A group of adjacent consonants like that is sometimes called a consonant cluster or consonant compound.
The digraph “th” is generally seen today in words originating in Old English and Greek. It’s used to represent what were the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) in Old English (spoken from roughly from 450 to 1150), and the Greek theta (θ), which was originally pronounced as an aspirated “t”—a “t” sound accompanied by a burst of breath.
The thorn and the eth, both of which represent the voiceless “th” sound in “bath” as well as the voiced sound in “bathe,” were gradually replaced by the digraph “th” in Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450).
Here are a few Old English words and their modern English versions: cláðas (“clothes”), broþor (“brother”), þæt (“that”), þyncan or ðyncan (“think”), and þicce (“thick”).
In Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, King Arthur’s name is spelled with an eth: “Arður; aðelest kingen” (“Arthur, most admired of kings”).
In later Middle English poetry, the king’s name is spelled with either “th” or “t” alone. In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer refers to “kyng Artur,” while in the alliterative Morte Arthure (circa 1400), it’s “kyng Arthur.”
As for words originating in Greek, the Romans used “th” to represent the theta in Greek loanwords. Then English borrowed many of these Greek terms from Latin or the Romance languages. As far as we can tell, the Latinized Greek “th” terms first appeared in Middle English.
Here are a few Middle English examples: “theatre,” from the Latin theātrum and the Greek θέᾱτρον (theātron); “theologie,” from Latin theologia and Greek θεολογία (theologίā); and “throne,” from Latin thronus and Greek θρόνος (thrónos). A few early “throne” examples are spelled with “t” instead of “th.”
As we’ve mentioned, the spellings and pronunciations of English words originating in Greek have varied quite a bit over the years. The theta has sometimes been represented by a “th” and sometimes by a “t.” And the “th” has sometimes been pronounced as a “t.”
We suspect that the confusion can be traced to medieval Latin, when the “th” sound in Greek loanwords began being pronounced as “t.” French then adopted this “th” spelling and “t” pronunciation, while the other major Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) used “t” for both the spelling and the pronunciation.
French, the major source of loanwords in English, has had a big influence on our spelling and pronunciation. In fact, the OED attributes the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English words to the influence of French. But English speakers usually pronounce the “th” digraph today much as the Anglo-Saxons pronounced the thorn and the eth in Old English.
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