Interdental substitutions

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A funny ad:

There are several serious questions behind the joke. One has to do with L1 effects: Why do speakers of some languages (Thai, Russian, Hungarian) characteristically substitute [t] for [θ], while speakers of other languages (Japanese, German, Egyptian Arabic) substitute [s], given that all of these languages have both [s] and [t]? This question is considered at length in Linda Lombardi, "Second language data and constraints on Manner: explaining substitutions for the English interdentals", Second Language Research, 2003.

Another question is whether the merger in production is also, as the ad implies, a merger in perception. The answer in this case seems to be "sort of" — see e.g. Linda Polka et al., "A cross-language comparison of /d/-/ð/ perception: Evidence for a new developmental pattern", J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 2001, from which this graph comes:

Getting back to the jokes, Linda Lombardi quotes this one — too good to check —  from John Edwards' 1994 book Multilingualism:

One of my favourite errors occurred in an American war film, subtitled in French. One fo the soldiers peers into the distance, and another says "Tanks?" The subtitle reads 'Merci'.


  1. blahedo said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    Aw, man, you totally give away the punchline with the post's title. As soon as the British guy said "sinking", I knew where it was headed. :P

  2. BenHemmens said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    – As a (mostly former) teacher of English to German speakers, I have to say that what's wrong with the clip is the fact that the guy puts the "about" at the end of the question. A real German would say "about what are you ssinking?"

    – The most puzzling widespread mispronunciation by German speakers is for me their problems with v. They regularly contort v's into a kind of w-sound, despite the fact that the right sound for an English v exists in German (represented by w).

    – My favorite mistranslation of all time was pepetrated by an unfortunate interpreter at the European Parliament when Dany Cohn-Bendit was giving a speech about the impending Iraq war. He was getting passionate as usual, and said (I think he was speaking in French, so the problem word was loi) "make law, not war": meaning, we should make more efforts with UN resolutions, etc. instead of invading. Presumably because Cohn-Bendit is an icon of '68, the interpreter missed the fact that he had adapted the saying and said solemnly: "make love, not war" !

  3. blahedo said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    You have the wrong link for that French graph (and associated paper); it's actually at (presumably among other places).

  4. Margaret said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    @BenHemmens: I don't think they'd even get the 'thinking about' structure, but it is very funny.
    The genuine German interpreter's mistake on TV here – I haven't got a link but I've seen one – where 'May the force be with you' was translated as 'Be with you on May 4th' seems to use the same sound confusion in reverse.

  5. Mark Etherton said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    Accurate interpretation can also be unintentionally funny, if another story about the European Parliament is to be believed. A French delegate in an agriculture committee allegedly asserted that some achievement was 'grâce à à la sagesse normande', which led to uncontrollable laughter from British MEPs, when the interpreter said 'and it's all thanks to Norman wisdom'.

    (For those unfamiliar with popular British cinema of the 50s and 60s, Norman Wisdom was a comic actor who played the same role of the put-upon hero Norman Pitkin in a series of low-budget but extremely successful slapstick films. He was particularly popular in Albania, where the Communist Party interpreted him as a proletarian struggling against the capitalist regime.)

  6. Paolo said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    @BenHemmens, I think it's more likely that the English interpreter got it right and the error was made into another language. When not all language pairs are available, interpreting between two languages is done via a third, often English (the pivot language). I can easily imagine a speaker of any of the other romance languages mishearing "make law" as "make love".

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    French resistance hero prepares for receiving medal from Eisenhower by mastering "thank you." (sorry, no IPA keyboard on this phone.) On the big night he grasps the General's hand and says "Merthi!"

  8. BZ said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    I think there is a lot of variation within languages. I am from Russia and spend a lot of time listening to broken English from those originating in that country. I would say that most would say "sinking" for "thinking" and not "tinking" as you seem to imply. In fact, most examples I can think of go the "s" route and not the "t" route. There is also a lot of variation within certain words. I've heard "tanks", "sanks", and "fanks" for "thanks".

    There is also a difference between spontaneous speaking and reading, as the appearance of a "t" in the "th" words primes for the "t sound".

    Things get even stranger with borrowings with original "th" sounds into Russian. "Bethlehem" and "logarithm" opt for the "f" substitution, but "algorithm" and "rhythm" get a "t", Here, though "t" predominates and I can't think of any "s" examples.

  9. Chandra said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    "Another question is whether the merger in production is also, as the ad implies, a merger in perception."

    In the ad, of course, perception would be further complicated by the background static. Even a perfectly fluent English speaker can confuse /s/ and /θ/ over telephone or radio.

  10. blahedo said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    The Russian case is partially due to language evolution, right? My understanding is that Russian *had* /θ/ (and indeed represented it with a letter derived from Greek theta), but that this merged with /f/ a few hundred years ago, with the orthographic reform that removed the theta character being relatively recent (19th century?). So any word that would have been borrowed more than a few hundred years ago (e.g. Bethlehem, Theodore) would be expected to have the /f/, while newer borrowings would not (necessarily).

    Also confounded, now that I think about it, by the fact that borrowings could occur from languages that had already lost the /θ/ and replaced it with /t/ or /s/ or whatever.

  11. Rubrick said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    I have nothing to say about the linguistics, but the ad is very nicely done; the actor hits the note superbly.

  12. M. Drach said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:31 pm


    The problem for German learners of English is that first we have to learn not to hear and produce English w as /v/.
    Then we have to learn that English ALSO has /v/.
    And of course in German orthography both v (in loan words) and w (in native words) represent /v/.
    And so a lot of non-fluent speakers hypercorrect and produce every English "w sound" as a /w/.

  13. BenHemmens said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    I looked at the EP website, unfortunately there isn't any video from that time and these things get corrected in the official record (which has the speech on 29 January 2003). But I remember watching an online video at the time (probably on Cohn-Bendit's website). As far as I can see, Cohn-Bendit has always represented France in the EP and he generally gives his plenary speeches in French.

    Ah! I see what happened. He was quoting a German sociologist who coined the (modified) phrase; and a quick google turns up this:, from 6 January 2003. And of course there the phrase is given in English. So C-B threw in this English phrase in the middle of a speech in French and the poor interpreter evidently only heard the "classic" version. So it wasn't an interpreting error but just a failure to accurately repeat something.

  14. Michael Newman said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    OK, I Can't resist telling the story of the this friend of mine whose Cuban mother introduced his then boyfriend as what sounding like "just coming down from jail" meaning that university in New Haven.

    Actually, what I'm noticing in my current research in Barcelona with is that the more open approximant /j/pronunciation of the Catalan sound written as and as opposed to the native fricative /ʒ/ is a pretty good shibboleth for non-nativelike Catalan speech in Catalan words and names. Because many Spanish speakers here give their children Catalan names like Jordi, Jessica, and Sergi. These people therefore call themselves and others "Yod-thee," "Yessica", and "Sedyi" in English pseudo phonetic transcription.

    The odd thing is that Spanish speakers from elsewhere in Spain with no knowledge of Catalan usually substitute /tʃ/ so they say "Chod-thee," Chessica" and "Sedchi."

  15. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    > Linda Lombadi
    > Linda Polka et al.
    > Linda Lombardi

    I was entertained by the prospect that interdental substitution was such a "Linda"-dominated area of research, until I realized that "Lombadi" was simply a typo for "Lombardi", and that Linda Polka was not actually an author of the second paper you linked to. It was quite a let-down. So I'm glad you changed the second link to point to a paper that Linda Polka was in fact the first author on, bringing the number of Lindas up to two at least. :-)

  16. DEP said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

    Reminds me of my college days when I told my German class mates that I had worked all summer as a "Nacktwächter" instead of a "Nachtwächter." I still can't hear the difference, but I can hear the laughter from the professor.

    [(myl) There's also the difference between Düsseldorf and Dusseldorf.]

  17. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    The German substitution of /s/ for /θ/ seems to be quite old: the undotted tav of Hebrew (originally /θ/) is read as /s/ in the Ashkenazic and as /t/ in the Sephardic pronunciation.
    Regarding French subtitles: In "Annie Hall," when Woody Allen says "I've known him for years," the subtitles read Je le connais depuis quatre ans.

  18. Joel said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    But as far as ads for language lessons go, this one wins:

  19. Bruce said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

    I thought you were going to link to the Dutch classic ad from Soesman Language Training …

  20. A.M. said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

    Second to BZ about Russian. The [t] substitution doesn't normally occur un the initial th's, 100% of Russians would say "ssinking", not "tinking". In the eamples like "theta" = тета the words are borrowed in the written form, transliterated rather than transcribed. Also, second to what blahedo said about the lost th-sound being replaced by f: compare Thomas – Фома, with an f.

  21. Misha C. said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 6:17 am

    I thinks it's not only a matter of phonetics. Normally, he should get it right because of the context: 'sea', 'ship', 'überlebends radar'… But the guy doesn's have a clue at all: "May Day, May Day" – sets a frame of hoax. And indeed: why would someone call for a spring day when sinking?! :)

  22. Misha C. said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 6:25 am

    Uuuuh!! Sorry for the "I thinks" and for the "doesn's"… My keyboard has a life of its own.

  23. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    My most fascinating take on this distinction is actually from French: the seminal European French take on English uses [s,]/ (the humorous use of "ze" is a shining example), but Quebec French speakers use [d,t]…

  24. Barbara Nykiel-Herbert said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    As a native speaker of Polish who started learning English in high school at the age of 15, I distinctly remember both perceving and producing English interdentals as labiodentals [f, v]. Later, being very conscious of interdentals as an English major in college and an English teacher, I observed that all three substitution variants occurred in the speech of Polish learners: [f,v], [t,d] and [s,z].

  25. Kathy Coletta said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    Joel: I loved the Alliance Francaise of Sydney clip, but I can't make out the first remark the man makes. I understood "My name is Barry," but I can't get a handle on the first thing he says. Please help! Thanks.

  26. Linda Lombardi said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    May I interrupt this serious on-topic discussion to say that it is very cool to have my work mentioned here, and doubly awesome to have it cited in a humor-related context, since I have since moved on to writing humor instead of linguistics. Hi, linguists! Hope you are all having fun without me.

  27. BenHemmens said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    M. Drach,

    yes, that seems to be more or less the standard explanation. But it seems to me to follow a convoluted route to set up the wrong sound for v as a hypercorrection.

    Going the other way, I found it easy to learn that w makes what I know as a v sound, while v does something different than in English (also not a hard sound to learn: just an f with a touch more force).

    The problem may lie in German-speaking English teachers not hearing the wrong v sound and therfore not correcting it consistently.

  28. LDavidH said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    It's just sad that hardly any foreigners substitute /f/ for /th/, when that would be the most natural-sounding "corruption" – quite a few native English-speakers do it as well, and fink nuffink of it…

  29. Andy Averill said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    Oftentimes people who don't speak a language get fixed ideas in their head about how certain words are pronounced. I'm thinking of all the Americans who seem to think voilà is pronounced wah-lah, choosing to ignore the v.

  30. Ž said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    You have Hungarian in with the [t] substitution, but here in Hungary, I'm more likely to hear "I sink" than "I tink".

  31. David J. Littleboy said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    That's _NOT_ funny.
    I had a friend (American) who worked in the back office at Deutsche Bank's Tokyo office. The German and Japanese engineers "communicated" in English. Essentially no communication happened, but lots of miscommunication did. He found it amazing that it didn't go bankrupt.

  32. Emily said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    Kathy Coletta He says "L'addition, s'il vous plait" or "Can I have the bill, please".

  33. Hans Adler said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    Presumably the following explanation has already been excluded, but I can't see how.

    I am assuming that there is a continuum of sounds between /t/ and /s/. In languages that have both of these but not /θ/, the demarcation between the two will run on one side or the other of a typical /θ/. (For some languages this might depend on the speaker.) The sound substituted for /θ/ should be the one that is equivalent to /θ/ in L1.

  34. Kathy Coletta said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    Emily: Thank you so much. That was driving me crazy. I appreciate your time.

  35. Hans said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    @ blahedo – Russian (and Church Slavic as well) never had a phoneme /θ/, it just had a letter denoting it in Greek loanwords. When pronouncing these loanwords, /f/ was substituted for /θ/, and this /f/ is what we still find in older (mostly Biblical / religious) Greek loanwords.

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