More on Thee / The (or THUH), and a Cross Cultural Look

I am continuously fascinated by the English language. I truly enjoy thinking about what the words I’m speaking mean on a deeper level, thinking about how language transcends time and human bodies, and how we speak these words differently based on all aspects of our setting. In class today, we scratched the surface of a discussion on the word “the” and its various pronunciations. In this post, I’ll dive deeper into that conversation, question why we do what we do when we speak, and look cross culturally to see what’s going on across the pond, so to speak. “The” carries with it a whole host of history.  Thinking more about when to use which pronunciation is throwing me for a loop! I shared my experience of using “thee” before vowels as common practice in singing, as well as “thuh” before consonants. My knowledge began to reach its limits when we reached the glottal sound in our reading of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Elements of Style, held within The America Play and Other Works during class. Parks mentions “gaw” and defines it as “a glottal stop” (17), yet my knowledge differs—a glottal stop as I know it is an abrupt ending or beginning to a sound being emitted. For ending sound, the sound being spoken (or sung) is cut off at the throat, specifically the epiglottis. To begin a sound with a glottal, perhaps what Parks is referencing, the sound begins with the epiglottis opening up the airway to allow sound to come through the vocal cords and produce sound. 

The other ways to make and end sound originate primarily in the diaphragm, or your gut. This is also where support when singing (at least healthily) comes from. If we were to sing with tension in our throats rather than our diaphragms, our voices would give out before long.

As I write this, I noticed (cue in Dionne Brand: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”) that I typed out “an” before the word “abrupt”, and “a” before “sound”. This similarly deals with the difference between “thee” and “thuh”. The “n” in “an” serves to help separate the two words without having to stop the production of sound coming through your voice. For example, “a animal” requires a glottal stop in the middle in order to make proper sense of it and not sound like you’re just slurring the “a” in “animal”. “An animal” can be spoken with much less effort in my opinion, as it shifts the defining factor between the words to a simple flick of the tongue rather than ceasing and restarting the phonation process, or the process of making sound.

When discussing “thee” and “thuh” with “animal” as the second word, “thee animal” does not have a consonant in the middle, but it moves the vowel from a long “ee”, a relatively closed vowel (one cannot make this sound with their jaw fully open successfully, or at least without trying excessively hard I suppose) all the way to an open “a” vowel, which has a distinct jaw drop in the process of changing words. This drop of the jaw changes the vowel enough that it is unnecessary to have a consonant involved. Conversely, “thuh” doesn’t quite accomplish the difference necessary to be properly understood, as “uh” is a fairly open sound. Funnily enough, as I write this I find the “uh” position to be much better suited to have a consonant follow it. For example, “thuh car” is easier for me to speak than “thee car”. In both the animal and car examples, when I attempt to use the “incorrect” pronunciation, I find myself stressing the word “the” in both pronunciations just to speak it accurately and in hopes that my sentence is actually understood, which is always a miracle as we know!

I want to bring up that this could be entirely cultural, societal, etc. It could just be that I was raised to have these pronunciations sound “normal” to me. Through this study of the language, I believe that the way that I hear things lends itself to help the speaker put in the smallest amount of anatomical effort to communicate their thoughts. If I had to put a glottal stop in between my “the”‘s and vowels every time, I would tire out eventually if I were reading aloud or giving a speech! I’ll close with another example that crosses culture (albeit this is still western, it’s British) to see what I might be able to do to make my speaking even easier, as the glottal stop, or even stopping and starting sound again from the diaphragm, takes some effort in retrospect.

The British have an interesting use of the letter “r”. It usually sounds like “ah”(commonly called a schwa sound) if it’s alone, but “r” can be used as a linking letter if the next word has a vowel or even as an “intrusive r” if the the first word ends in a schwa and the second word begins with a vowel. This video does a good job of explaining the uses, but I’ll type out my findings here.

The word “harder” would end in a schwa if spoken alone, but if the next words are “and harder” as an idiom, then the “r” would be pronounced in the first “harder” so that the speaker could continue to produce sound and not have to use a glottal stop to differentiate the words. Thus, we’d end up with “hardeR and hardah”. The “r” here is simply brought back out of its resting schwa state and used as a bridge into the next word.

The “intrusive r” shows up out of nowherewhich seems crazy! An example of this from my childhood would be the Oasis song “Champagne Supernova“. During the chorus, the singer sings the title and pronounces it “Champagne Supernovah” when there is nothing following it, but inserts an “intrusive r” when the line continues with “in the sky”, resulting in the following full pronunciation: “A champagne supernova, (rest) a champagne supernovar-in the sky”. This “r” is completely out of context, (and is not an American / Rochesterian hard “r”, it’s a softer British “r” but still!) yet it allows the singer to phonate through the line he sings rather than use a glottal stop while singing, which is in my experience very difficult to do and maintain pitch accuracy. As an American child hearing this song, I thought it was the strangest thing that he could sing the same word in two different ways! Little did I know that he was saving his epiglottis some work by just making that small, soft, British “r”.

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