Whenever I observe my fellow Brazilian countrymen learning to speak English, a clear sound change pattern stands out:

[θ] → [f]
[ð] → [d], syllable-initial 
      [f], syllable-final

So, for example, think is usually pronounced [fĩk], then is pronounced [den] and with, [wif].

Since Brazilian Portuguese does not have dental fricatives, this kind of sound change is much to be expected. What is interesting about it is the regularity of the pattern. Among other "likely" candidates, such as [s] or [t], which are also sounds found in BP, [f] is — almost always — chosen to replace [θ]. Similarly with [ð], that could as well be replaced with [z] or [v].

Even those who have never heard other people speak that way will make this choice. So, my question is: can this sound change be predicted from Brazilian Portuguese phonology? What else could explain its regularity? In general, if a phonologist is presented with two languages, A and B, can they predict what sound changes are most likely to occur if the native speakers of A start speaking B as a second language?

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    Good question. I think it is certainly related to someone's first language. In Holland, inexperienced people will usually say d in English for initial ð, while Germans typically (always?) say z. But perhaps Dutchmen can also say z between vowels. It's complicated. As to θ, I think the Dutch are split: the majority will probably say f, but some might say s (possibly mostly older people—but I could be wrong here). At the end of a syllable, θ can also become t! Final ð is probably pronounced f or s or t, just like θ. It can also depend on the word, I think. – Cerberus May 17 '13 at 1:59
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    Another complicating factor is that the Dutch words de/dat/dit/daar exist, which are mostly used in ways similar to English the/that/this/there: that could be an extra reason for the subconscious to pick d. // A typical French accent has z for θ and ð everywhere, I think. At least they use it a lot: perhaps not everywhere. – Cerberus May 17 '13 at 2:01
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    I'm not sure how much of a "factor" this is, it may be correlation, rather than causation, but there are enough English people who pronounce those sounds that way too. It's usually associated with the lower classes in certain areas, but it's far from uncommon, especially the "with->wiff" example. – Ryno May 17 '13 at 2:33
  • The dental fricatives are a problem for speakers of most major languages learning English. Among other "world" or national languages I can think of that have one or both are Albanian, Arabic, Greek, Icelandic, and European Spanish. – hippietrail Jun 5 '13 at 5:39
  • WALS has a map of world languages with "th sounds" with some more lingua francas, national languages and world langauges I didn't think of: Burmese, Quechua, Swahili. Oddly, WALS does not include Icelandic! – hippietrail Jun 5 '13 at 5:50

If you look at phonetic implementation of these sounds, American English /ð/ is often pronounced a lot like an affricate [̪dð] when in onset position (not just in the stereotyped pronunciation of Chicago, but in other dialects as well). If a BP learner of English hears such a sound, it is unsurprising that they will classify it according to the closest match in their native phonology (which according to your description of BP, would be [d]).

Your example of "with" is odd, since in many (most?) dialects of English, /ð/ does not occur syllable-finally in that word (rather it's θ); in any event, the likely explanation for /ð/ → [f] (instead of [s] or [z]) has to do with segmental cues: both [ð] and [f] are fairly quiet fricatives, while [s] and [z] are quite loud (because the tongue forms a groove that channels a high-velocity air stream right at the back of the teeth, causing lots of loud turbulence. This makes [ð] and [f] more perceptually similar than say [ð] and [s].

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    /ð/ does occur in syllable-final position. Perhaps not in very many words but the words "bathe" and "lathe" are not rare words. Wiktionary has some more unusual examples. – hippietrail Jun 5 '13 at 5:26
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    Ah, right you are. Not sure why I didn't think of those examples. corrected my answer. – drammock Jun 5 '13 at 14:08
  • /ð/ is normal for 'with' in many (most?) British dialects. – Colin Fine Jun 5 '13 at 17:09

Since (inter)dental fricatives are indeed not that easy to pronounce for those speakers whose native languages do not have these phonemes (or even those of them whose local pronunciational norm differs), there is a big statistical data of which mistakes and replacements are more common. Some of such "mispronunciations" are so common that there exists specials term for them. Here they are:

  • th-alverorization - ([θ], [ð]) → ([s], [z]). Typical for some English dialects as well.
  • th-fronting - ([θ], [ð]) → ([f], [v]). There's an excellent quote in wikipedia on this issue:

Th-fronting occurs (in many cases historically independently) in Cockney, Estuary English, West Country dialects, Yorkshire dialect, Glaswegian, Newfoundland English, African American Vernacular English, and Liberian English, as well as in many foreign accents (though the details differ among those accents).

  • th-stopping - realization of the dental fricatives [θ, ð] as stops. This is also typical for dialect as well as for some accents.

    So, to conclude, there's nothing untypical (from the statistical point of view) in how Brazilians pronounce this phonemes, whether they are countrymen or not ;) See, they could have been English monolingual speakers and still follow the same patterns.

Dis is da life )))

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