Sunday, March 15, 2009


You've probably picked up on birther by now, the term for those pursuing the Obama-wasn't-born-in-America-so-he-can't-be-president conspiracy theory. The birthers are pretty clear tinfoil hat folks, as reviewed briefly by The Skeptical Teacher and snarkily by Wonkette (yes, that's redundant).

The term hasn't been talked about on linguistics blogs that I know of (Mr V says, without doing a careful search), but Ben Zimmer never misses anything and he's dealt with it briefly at Double-Tongued, here. He points out the derivational connection to truther, the term for those who doubt the generally accepted view of the 9/11 attacks. In "Among the new words" (2008, vol. 83.3, p. 355), American Speech dealt with truther at some length. Here's their intro:
truther, Truther n [from truth + -er; perhaps influenced semantically by liar] Person who believes that he or she knows the truth behind some event, especially in contrast to the generally accepted explanation (compare conspiracy theorist [OEDas 1964])
Anyway, a tiny question: truther clearly has to be pronounced with a voiceless [θ], parallel to the name Luther. But with birther, we have the noun birth with [θ] and the verb to birth with [ð]. (There's a set of alternations like that, including tooth/teeth vs. to teethe. A story for another day.) I think I've only heard birther pronounced with [θ], but it doesn't actually sound all that bad to me with [ð]. Surely that form's not possible, is it?

Image from TPM.


John Cowan said...

In general, /ð/ is a dead phoneme in English: new words are neither created nor borrowed with it. For example, Spanish words with [ð], like padre, come into English with /d/. So I'd be very surprised to hear birther with /ð/.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely padre is because of the spelling as much as anything else?

Plus, while I don't speak Spanish, a quick look around the web indicates this d is a þ.

Mr. Verb said...

Is /ð/ really that dead in English? It certainly participates in plenty of alternations, occurs with pretty high frequency, etc. (This is a real question, not an implicit challenge.) I'd agree that the interdental fricatives would probably be gone with the pressures of schooling and norms, but that's a little different, and maybe less clear. The real test would be recent loanwords transmitted orally from a language with interdentals, I guess.

Ridger, the Spanish written 'd' is definitely widely produced with /ð/.

Andrea said...

I haven't heard this term before, but before reading the body of this blog entry, I read the title as bir[ð]er.

q-pheevr said...

I have /θ/ in the verb birth (or at least, I would say it that way if I used it as a verb at all, which I'm not sure I ever have done). (I do use /ð/ in bathe, teethe, breathe, etc.)

On the other hand, birther with /ð/ would open up some nice paronomastic possibilities—birther most foul, birther and walking spirits, etc., etc.

Mr. Verb said...

Ah, Andrea, so this IS a possible form here? Q-pheevr, I had not even considered those possibilities! All the more reason to pronounce it Andrea's way. Maybe, John, we'll have to bring /ð/ back from the dead!


Monkay said...

And there are the "berthers", who apparently believe that the Titanic really made it into port, and that the "sinking" was staged for the insurance money . . .

Mr. Verb said...


regan said...

I doubt I've ever used birth as a verb, but I have "birthing" as in "birthing room" with /θ/

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, I'd say 'birthing room' with /ð/, for sure.

etymologyfreak said...

Mr. Verb said... "Oh, I'd say 'birthing room' with /ð/, for sure."

Me too, without a doubt. I'm actually having a hard time thinking of a word with a voiceless interdental fricative intervocalically (or between two voiced elements, regardless of if they're consonants or vowels).

It's been a while since I studied Old English, but it seems I remember the rule there being /θ/ at word boundaries and /ð/ internally (except in compounds, which explains the maintenance of /θ/ in words like withdraw where the interdental fricative is between two voiced elements AND word-internal).

But John Cowan's remark that "words are neither created nor borrowed with it" has had me thinking for over a day now and for the life of me I can't think of any countervailing evidence. Although I don't find the Spanish "padre" example convincing because I don't think the Spanish interdental fricatives sound enough like ours to trigger recognition. The Spanish speaking women I tutored in English also had problems with her th sounds, so I don't think they're close enough to be thought of as interchangeable, at least not in this cross-linguistic situation.

Mr. Verb said...

We do words with the voiceless intervocalically, like ether, ethical, Arthur (after a sonorant rather than vowel), and brothel.

I can't come up with loans, but we aren't borrowing many words these days from languages with the sound. I bet there are some in newly derived forms, and it sounds like some people have the voiced in 'birther'.


John Cowan said...

I checked the OED and the AHD4 to see what pronunciation of birthing they listed, and both show [θ]. Unfortunately, the M-W dictionaries don't give a separate pronunciation, but the very omission suggests that they also prefer [θ], that being the undisputed pronounciation of birth.

On to the history. It's true that in OE and even ME, [ð] was an allophone of /θ/ used intervocalically; indeed, OE has no phonemic voiced fricatives at all. A combination of borrowing and sound-change split all of /s/, /f/, and /θ/ into two phonemes, but our conservative spelling system does not uniformly do so, although as far as I know only of continues to be spelled with f while being pronounced [v].

In the specific case of /ð ~ θ/, three changes disturbed the original conditioned alternation. The many function words of English with initial /θ/ came to be uniformly pronounced [ð], as in the, this, that, then, though, and so on. However, content words such as thin, thick, thatch, through were unaffected. Nevertheless, it so happens that minimal pairs here are few: there is thy vs. thigh and possibly one or two more.

Second, a great many Greek words such as ether and ethical were borrowed, mostly after the split of /ð ~ θ/, and they arrived uniformly as /θ/. Likewise, Welsh /ð/ landed as /θ/ in English, as in the name Gwyneth with /θ/ < W gwynedd 'white' with /ð/, even though Welsh has both /θ/ and /ð/, possibly contributing to the survival of both in English when they were lost from all the other Germanic languages.

Minimal pairs from this source are likewise rare: either vs. ether is the only one I know of, and only for people who pronounce either with [i:]. (As Arthur and worthy show, voicing also occurred after /r/ even in non-rhotic dialects.) I can't account for the OED's /θ/ in brothel, though, as that is an OE word: I myself have /ð/.

Lastly, the fall of final -e caused some words to end in [ð], which was formerly unknown in that position. This is the largest source of minimal pairs, such as sooth vs. soothe, smooth (adj) vs. smooth (v), mouth (n) vs. mouth (v). In some cases, as shown, the -e has been lost from the spelling as well.

Overall, though, the functional load of the /θ/ vs. /ð/ opposition is fairly small, nothing like /f/ vs. /v/ or /s/ vs. /z/, and English spelling is not seriously worse off for using th for both phonemes.

John Cowan said...

Oops. I meant, but forgot, to point out that -ing, -ed, etc. don't usually trigger the change of voiceless to voiced fricatives, which is why I'd expect to find birthing only with /θ/.

Mr. Verb said...

Certainly the functional load of the voicing distinction here is very low -- and other examples tend to be very marginal, like then ~ thin for pre-nasal raising speakers). Just as importantly, I don't know of any examples where homophony would lead to confusion in ordinary speech.

As you note (and I did earlier), there is a (historically-rooted) generalization that verbs often have a voiced interdental and related nouns and adjective have a voiceless. I wonder if the speakers who have to 'to birth' and related forms with /ð/ have followed that as an analogical model?

A detail: The rest of West Germanic has lost interdentals, but Icelandic has them. (Faroese, I believe, doesn't.)

But, say, do you really have /ð/ in Arthur?


John Cowan said...

You're quite right about Icelandic and about /θ/ in Arthur -- post in haste, repent at leisure. The latter is either a borrowing from Welsh Arthur, which already has /θ/, or else from Latin or Latinized French Arthur, Artur, in which case the /θ/ may be a spelling pronunciation, as in some pronunciations of Anthony.

Mr. Verb said...

Details in both cases, of course. I was really stretching to imagine that rendering of Arthur, though.

etymologyfreak said...

Mr. Verb said "ether, ethical, Arthur... brothel"

Thanks for coming up with those Mr. Verb, but I forgot to say that what I was actually searching for in my mind was native Germanic words with intervocalic /θ/.

I too have /θ/ in brothel and am surprised to learns that others have /ð/. It's not a very common word, so I bet many people encounter it in writing before ever hearing it spoken. OED has the note: "influenced by and superseding bordel." I don't have access to OED online right now, so I'm now sure about dates, but I think it's safe to assume that the period where the two forms were confused and/or in competition with each other was after the split of /ð ~ θ/. It really does seem to be an outlier, though, because an intervocalic interdental fricative in a Germanic word really "should" be voiced. Something funky must be going on with the confusion with bordel/bordello.

I guess since most of the voiceless > voiced sound alternations seem to be based on analogy in some form (they all seem to be "memorized"), maybe we have these differences because we have differences in the way we understand the analogies (when we "think" about them at all). How much do we get from our upbringing? Just pronunciation of words or also patterns of analogy?

John Cowan, thanks for all the info. This is all really interesting stuff. Do you have an approximate date for the split of /ð ~ θ/? It was obviously before the flood of Ancient Greek words into English, but now I'm wondering about earlier periods of borrowing where /ð/ and /θ/ may have been involved in some sound alternations upon borrowing.

Also, I was not aware that the the -dd of Welsh was (is?) an interdental fricative. Do you have any more examples of affected English borrowings or can you point me to a source that has more? People always say how Welsh (and Celtic languages in general) had such a minimal effect on English, so I like to have some examples at my disposal to offer at least some evidence that it had at least some influence.

John Cowan said "English spelling is not seriously worse off for using th for both phonemes"

No, not really, but I do kinda wish we still had thorn and eth. I know.... not very "continental."

John Cowan said...

The then/thyn split apparently dates to Early Middle English. The Wikipedia articles on the history of English phonology (start at the topmost article and work your way down, or use the category) are real, around 1650ly excellent for once, with a lot of information in one place.

I should have mentioned that the full separation of through and thorough postdates the split, which is why although through is now mostly a preposition, it keeps /θ/; I should probably have used thorough as an example. In 1650, Marvell was still tearing his pleasures "thorough the iron gates of life", at least in poetry.

Welsh had to create its own set of kludges for the voiced interdental fricatives that did not exist in Latin, so f is /v/, ff is /f/, th is /θ/, and dd is /ð/. Welsh final voiced fricatives are weak, though, and sometimes get lost or mixed up. The capital of Wales, Caerdydd, now ends in /ð/ in Welsh, but the English-speakers who have made up most of its population since its founding early in the 12th century call it Cardiff, reflecting an earlier Welsh form Caer Daf, the fort on the river named Taf /tav/ in Welsh and Taff in English (hence, possibly, Taffy 'Welshman' derog.).

Note that English didn't have final [v] any more than final /ð/ until the fall of final -e, hence the devoicing of Taf. English is still very unwilling to write final -v (which could have been mistaken for final -u until Johnson's time), writing love, move, prove, and only recently Slav.

Borrowings from Welsh really are pretty scarce, except for river names, which are nearly immutable, at least in Europe, no matter how many changes of language there are. Indeed, some of Britain's rivers are not Celtic at all, but reflect the forgotten speech of the prior occupants. For example, the River Adur in Sussex and the River Dour in Kent share the form /dur ~ dor/, which has no known etymology, with many rivers across Europe.

Lastly, although it's true that Old English used both θ and ð in writing, no systematic differentiation was made between them, as none was needed; after all, they represented the same phoneme.

John Cowan said...

Oops. Strike "real, around 1650."