Even to those who have some linguistic training, the term TH-fronting might be unclear. So what the heck is it? Simply put, it’s what happens when speakers use the sounds /f/ or /v/ instead of TH. This results in words like “thing” becoming “fing,” or “brother” becoming “bruvver” — and it can also make “three” and “free” sound identical.
Let’s take a look at why, how, when and where this happens in English — and what it means for people learning English.
The TH-sounds that exist in most types of English are technically known as dental fricatives. There are just two of them: /θ/ (soft TH, placed in the middle or end of words) and /ð/ (hard TH, placed at the beginning of words like “this.”) Both these sounds are produced by placing the tongue tip between the teeth or just behind the upper teeth.
What makes the /θ/ sound a soft TH is how we say it. It’s known as voiceless, meaning that no vocal noise is produced in the throat for pronunciation. The hard /ð/, on the other hand, is voiced. Try saying “math” and “the” and you’ll hear the difference between the two types of TH-sounds!
These sounds are actually quite uncommon: While there are several European languages beyond English which use TH-sounds (Icelandic, European Spanish, Greek and Welsh, for example), there aren’t many other languages where these sounds occur. This is probably because TH-sounds are actually pretty difficult for humans to produce.
Because children don’t always have all their adult teeth while they’re developing their language abilities,TH-sounds are among the last acquired by young speakers. And as people age, they have a tendency to lose their teeth, so similarly, are unable to produce these sounds if they do not have a full set of teeth.
Why Does TH-Fronting Happen?
Understanding that dental fricatives are uncommon and difficult to produce is a big step to understanding why TH-fronting happens: Language change is almost always an unconscious attempt to make a language easier to speak.
But why do the dental fricatives get replaced with /f/ and /v/ sounds? Known as labio-dental fricatives, these sounds only require a few upper teeth since they’re made by placing the upper teeth against the lower lip and pushing air through the mouth. This makes them much easier sounds for speakers to produce, regardless of how many teeth they have.
Crucially though, /f/ and /v/ sound very similar to TH, and can be easily mistaken for one another, even by native speakers. This makes them an easily understood alternative to the more challenging TH sounds — so it’s really no surprise that TH-fronting happens in the first place.
Who Does It?
Not every native speaker of English does TH-fronting. But there are many speakers who will replace TH with /f/ and /v/ occasionally, or even as a rule. So who are they?
When first hearing about TH-fronting, many people immediately associate it with British English, specifically the accent from the South East of England, and even more specifically, from London. However, this is not the only accent of English in which we find TH-fronting. It’s also very common the Northeast of England, in Scottish English, in New Zealand English, in Newfoundland English, Liberian English and in African American Vernacular English.
Because TH-fronting was not a common feature of English before it spread across the globe, this tells us that TH-fronting didn’t develop from just one accent. Instead, it’s a progression of language change as people try to make our language easier to speak.
Should I Do It As A Learner?
As a learner of English, it might be tempting to take this short-cut to a simpler pronunciation. However, TH-fronting as a foreign learner of English isn’t generally advisable — it’s a personal choice, but it could lead to misunderstandings.
Of course, if you are already fluent, or if you live in an English-speaking area where speakers use a lot of TH-fronting, incorporating this into your everyday speech might help you integrate and sound even more native! That being said, TH-fronting isn’t necessary for integration or comprehension, as many people have a negative association with TH-fronting as being “lazy” or “not speaking properly.”
Choices about using it aside, as a learner, it’s good to know what TH-fronting is so that when you encounter it you can understand the words people are saying — and you’ll know that “fink” is actually “think,” not a new word you haven’t learned yet.