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I have a friend, a native English speaker from Boston, MA, USA (I believe he is mostly Irish American), who is absolutely adamant that the first sound in "thank you" is voiced, rather than voiceless. Moreover, one of his college English professors (also a native English speaker, but not sure where from) agrees.

My friend acknowledges that all the dictionaries seem to say that the sound is voiceless; moreover, I was able to produce numerous examples from YouTube where a native speaker clearly uses the voiceless "th" (e.g., Matthew McConaughey and Viola Davis).

And still he---and his professor---insist that, in their daily lives, they have never heard the "th" in "thank you" pronounced as anything other than voiced.

My question is: is the voiced "th" in "thank you" something that is well-known and documented as a regional variant? Or is there something else going on here?

(I also posed this question on the Linguist List, here... no answers yet.)

Update:

  1. Alex B. pointed out that there indeed exists some published research: The Survey of English Dialects (Orton et al. 1962-71) recorded "a number of instances of the voicing of all four fricatives in word-initial (Anlaut) position in the South and the South-West Midlands" (Fisiak 1988); see Voitl 1988 (also here). Related research includes that by Martyn Wakelin, esp. Wakelin and Barry (1968).

  2. From the comments by musicallinguist, it seems that sometimes even among siblings raised in the same household there can be a difference in the voicing of the initial "th," which persists into adulthood.

  3. I have discovered that, several months prior to my original posting of the present question, essentially the same question had been posted to the English stackexchange. The original asker was motivated by the observation described in 2. above, in her own family (though it is unclear what are the ages of her siblings who pronounce the "th" as voiced). One contributor there stated that the voiced "th" in "thank" can be found "[i]n parts of New England," but, as of yet, no one has provided published references for this.

In light of this, let me refine my question a bit.

A. Is there any published research on the situations where even among native speakers who were born and raised (and live) in the same area, or even the same household, there are some who pronounce the "th" as voiceless, and some who pronounce it as voiced? Are those with the minority pronunciation usually aware that they are in the minority, or are they usually not really aware of it?

B. Also helpful would be examples of (research on) other kinds of within-group linguistic differences---those that are in some relevant sense 'similar' to the difference in the voicing. As far as what exactly should count as 'similar,' well, that is itself kind of a part of the question. Here is one proposal for what it may mean: the differences in some linguistic feature such that 1. one would not expect this feature to vary within such a (linguistically close) group of people; 2. the group members exhibiting this feature are clearly in the minority, but, at the same time, they are also clearly a group and not just a couple of isolated cases; 3. there is no relevant pathology (e.g. impaired hearing or speech processing or speech production) that could explain the existence of the subgroup with the minority feature.

C. Further references on regional variation with respect to the voicing of the initial "th" would also be very much appreciated.

  • I've never seen real data on this, but to my ears (I'm from the tri-state area in the US) the voiced version sounds very weird. That said, my own brother has it in his dialect! I've also discussed this with another linguist who has the voiceless variant like me, and out of her three children one of them has the voiced variant. If there are regional tendencies, they can't be the only explanation given these two data points! – musicallinguist Jan 7 '16 at 19:41
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    I would ask for objective acoustic evidence to support the contention. While you are asking, get examples of other words with expected initial [θ] vs. [ð], esp. "this'll" vs. "thistle". Get data from the professor as well. – user6726 Jan 7 '16 at 20:28
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    So does your friend say it with the voiced version? And surely if you produce the voiceless version (which is the only version I, a native speaker of Australian English, have ever heard in that word) then he's heard at least one person? – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 7 '16 at 22:39
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    @musicallinguist That's really unexpected...! Is your brother aware that his variant is different than yours, and different from most other people's? – linguisticturn Jan 7 '16 at 22:59
  • @user6726 Objective acoustic evidence might be a tall order... this is why I was hoping someone might know of a research that had already been done. But I can certainly try to find out if there are any other "th" sounds my friend pronounces differently from what is stated in dictionaries. – linguisticturn Jan 7 '16 at 23:01
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Both my brother and I substitute a voiced dental fricative (ð) at the beginning of words where most American English speakers would have a voiceless dental fricative (θ). This is often accompanied by a change to the vowel.

Thus "thanks" (θænks) becomes "thenks" (ðɛnks).

We are from northeastern Ohio if that is of any use to you. I have not been able to find an official name for this variation.

  • dictionary.reference.com/browse/thank said it is /θæŋk/. IIRC, English doesn't have /c/ sound. It sounds nearly the same with /tʃ/ in cheese – Danh Jan 12 '16 at 4:11
  • @Mike Thanks, that is very interesting... Is it your impression that this is typical for the people who grew up in the area? For instance, do most of the people you went to grade school with also pronounce these words like you and your brother do? – linguisticturn Jan 13 '16 at 4:52
  • @Danh Yes, as mentioned in the original question, all the dictionaries say that the "th" in "thanks" is voiceless. However, as evident from the discussion here, there is a subgroup of native speakers who use the voiced sound. My main question, in fact, is whether there is any actual published research on the topic. Having said that, the anecdotal evidence presented above is certainly interesting... Also, I'm a bit confused by your comment on the /c/ sound... Could you explain a bit why you are mentioning it? – linguisticturn Jan 13 '16 at 5:03
  • @linguisticturn I just want to correct the IPA symbols in Mike's answer. Because it's /k/ sound not /c/ sound. /c/ sound is completely difference from /k/ – Danh Jan 13 '16 at 6:12
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    @ Alex-B Thank you! I'll update the original question with this information. – linguisticturn Jan 13 '16 at 19:34
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My own personal experience (US English) has been only hearing "thanks" said with voiced dental fricative from young adult speakers less than 25 years of age (2010-2015 time range). It doesn't seem to be uniform within that age group, and is usually only apparent when the word "thanks" or "thank" is the first word in the sentence. The pronunciation variant doesn't seem to extend to conventionally voiceless dental fricatives like "thought" or "thin". Just my own anecdotal observations. I don't have any hard data to present about it, unfortunately.

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    Thanks! Where in the US, if you don't mind sharing? – linguisticturn Feb 18 '16 at 19:54
  • My impressions are similar (in northern CA). – TKR Jan 8 '17 at 22:09
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One of the pastors at our church in suburban Chicago says "thank" and "thanks" with a voiced dental fricative. I had never heard it before and it took me a while to figure out why it sounded so strange. I found this thread when I decided to research if it was a regional dialect. He grew up in Kalamazoo, MI.

  • This should be a comment, not an answer. ONce you have gained a few points of reputation here, you can comment everywhere. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 6 '18 at 10:57
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I grew up around Boston, Ma and I would always pronounce the th in thanks and thank you as voiced never voiceless.

  • Welcome to Linguistics.SE! An anecdotal evidence can't serve an answer in our format. It could be only a part that confirms author's personal point, but the main core of the answer should be based on scientific approach, backed with credible references and academic works. Otherwise, think what happens if every user posted an answer about they they pronounce /th/ in their families. – bytebuster Feb 6 '18 at 9:03

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