Th (digraph)

Th is a digraph in the Latin script. It was originally introduced into Latin to transliterate Greek loan words. In modern languages that use the Latin alphabet, it represents a number of different sounds. It is the most common digraph in order of frequency in the English language.[1]

Cluster /t.h/

A. B. Frost's first comic: a German attempts to pronounce English-language "th" sounds

The most logical use of th is to represent a consonant cluster of the phonemes /t/ and /h/, as in English knighthood. This is not a digraph, since a digraph is a pair of letters representing a single phoneme or a sequence of phonemes that does not correspond to the normal values of the separate characters.

Aspirated stop /tʰ/

The digraph th was first introduced in Latin to transliterate the letter theta Θ, θ in loans from Greek. Theta was pronounced as an aspirated stop /tʰ/ in Classical and Koine Greek.[2]

th is used in academic transcription systems to represent letters in east Asian alphabets that have the value /tʰ/. According to the Royal Thai General System of Transcription, for example, th represents a series of Thai letters with the value /tʰ/.[3]

Alveolar stop /t/

Because neither /tʰ/ nor /θ/ were native phonemes in Latin, the Greek sound represented by th came to be pronounced /t/. The spelling retained the digraph for etymological reasons. This practice was then borrowed into German, French, Dutch and other languages, where th still appears in originally Greek words, but is pronounced /t/. See German orthography. Interlingua also employs this pronunciation.

In early modern times, French, German and English all expanded this by analogy to words for which there is no etymological reason, but for the most part the modern spelling systems have eliminated this. Examples of unetymological th in English are the name of the River Thames from Middle English Temese and the name Anthony (the th is sometimes pronounced /θ/ under the influence of the spelling[4]) from Latin Antonius.

In English, th for /t/ can also occur in loan-words from French or German, such as Neanderthal. The English name Thomas has initial /t/ because it was loaned from Norman.

Dental stop /t̪/

In the transcription of Australian Aboriginal languages th represents a dental stop, /t̪/.[5]

Voiceless fricative /θ/

During late antiquity, the Greek phoneme represented by the letter θ mutated from an aspirated stop /tʰ/ to a fricative /θ/. This mutation affected the pronunciation of th, which began to be used to represent the phoneme /θ/ in some of the languages that had it.

One of the earliest languages to use the digraph this way was Old High German, before the final phase of the High German consonant shift, in which /θ/ and /ð/ came to be pronounced /d/.

The Old English Latin alphabet adapted the runic letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth) to represent this sound, but the digraph th gradually superseded these letters in Middle English. However, in early Old English of the 7th and 8th centuries, the runic letters were initially not used yet and the digraph used in its place.

In Old and Middle Irish, th was used for /θ/ as well, but the sound eventually changed into [h] (see below).

Other languages that use th for /θ/ include Albanian and Welsh, both of which treat it as a distinct letter and alphabetize it between t and u.

Voiced fricative /ð/

English also uses th to represent the voiced dental fricative /ð/. This unusual extension of the digraph to represent a voiced sound is caused by the fact that, in Old English, the sounds /θ/ and /ð/ stood in allophonic relationship to each other and so did not need to be rigorously distinguished in spelling. The letters þ and ð were used indiscriminately for both sounds, and when these were replaced by th in the 15th century, it was likewise used for both sounds. (For the same reason, s is used in English for both /s/ and /z/.)

In the Norman dialect Jèrriais, the French phoneme /r/ is realized as /ð/, and is spelled th under the influence of English.


In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, th represents the lenition of /t/. In most cases word-initially, it is pronounced /h/. For example: Irish and Scottish Gaelic toil [tɛlʲ] 'will' → do thoil [də hɛlʲ] 'your will'.

This use of digraphs with h to indicate lenition is distinct from the other uses which derive from Latin. While it is true that the presence of digraphs with h in Latin inspired the Goidelic usage, their allocation to phonemes is based entirely on the internal logic of the Goidelic languages. It is also a consequence of their history: the digraph initially, in Old and Middle Irish, designated the phoneme /θ/, but later sound changes complicated and obscured the grapheme–sound correspondence, so that th is even found in some words like Scottish Gaelic piuthar "sister" that never had a /θ/ to begin with. This is an example of "inverted (historical) spelling": the model of words where the original interdental fricative had disappeared between vowels caused th to be reinterpreted as a marker of hiatus.


The Irish and Scottish Gaelic lenited /t/ is silent in final position, as in Scottish Gaelic sgith /skiː/ "tired". And, rarely, it is silent in initial position, as in Scottish Gaelic thu /uː/ "you".

In English the th in "asthma" and "clothes"[6] is often silent.

See also


  1. "Statistical information".
  2. Conti, Aidan; Shaw, Philip; Rold, Orietta Da (2015-01-01). Writing Europe, 500-1450: Texts and Contexts. Boydell & Brewer. p. 106. ISBN 9781843844150.
  3. Engel, David; Engel, Jaruwan (2010-02-12). Tort, Custom, and Karma: Globalization and Legal Consciousness in Thailand. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804763820.
  4. Jones, Daniel (2006). Cambridge English pronouncing dictionary (17. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 25. ISBN 0521680867.
  5. Dixon, Robert M. W. (2006-01-01). Australian Aboriginal Words in English: Their Origin and Meaning. Oxford University Press. p. 229. ISBN 9780195540734.
  6. "Definition of CLOTHES". Retrieved 2016-05-27.
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