Zippy's th'

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Pretty much every time I post a Zippy cartoon (most recently, here), someone writes to ask about Bill Griffith's spelling of the definite article the as th', as in

I know th' human being and th' fish can coexist peacefully!

The question was asked in the comments on my posting "Are we snowcloning yet?" back in June and was answered by other commenters there. The purpose of today's posting is to record the answer, with some commentary, so that I can refer future queries here.

The short answer is that Griffith is just representing the ordinary, reduced, pronunciation of the. The spelling th' is an instance of "eye dialect" (in a narrow sense), spellings (like wimmin for women) that represent ordinary pronunciations.

(A complication: unfortunately, there's also a wide sense of "eye dialect", referring to any spelling that reflects a dialect pronunciation, like athalete for athlete. I prefer "dialect spelling" for this meaning, but the other use is out there.)

Eye dialect (in my sense) usually serves to mark someone's speech as non-standard, rustic, uneducated, and the like; M. F. K. Fisher called such spelling "inaudible provincialism" ("An alphabet for gourmets", Gourmet magazine, February 1949). Vance Maverick pointed me to Fisher and also suggested "inaudible colloquialism" for Griffith's th'. But, as we pointed out in a series of postings back in 2005 (with additional commentary from Chris Waigl on her blog), there is nothing particularly colloquial, casual, or informal about the pronunciation [ðə]; it's the usual pronunciation of the. What Griffith is indicating by his spelling is that his characters are not using the variant [ði], which is emphatic or hyper-formal. (The apostrophe also suggests, correctly, that the schwa of [ðə] is very short.)

A brief re-play of the 2005 discussion is in order here. Here's a bit from Mark Liberman's second posting on the pronunciation of the English articles:

Let's take the recent MetaFilter thread on the prounciation of the and a as an example. The premise, announced by snsranch, is that the correct pronunciation of these words is [ði] and [ej], rhyming with "me" and "bay", and that the reduced forms [ðə] and [ə] are a modern degeneracy that traditionalists should resist.

Without making any judgment whatsoever on the value of adherence to tradition, everyone should immediately see that this premise is completely false. As far as I know, all standard versions of English, in formal as well as informal registers, normally render the and a as [ðə] and [ə] whenever a word beginning with a consonant follows. When a vowel-initial word follows, the standard practice is to use a higher, more [i]-like vowel in the definite article (which is an instance of a more general phenomenon known as vowel-before-vowel tensing), and to use the form "an" for the indefinite article. Emphatic forms — for example in case of contrastive stress, or a particularly strong emphasis on every word of a phrase –are [ði] and [ej] before consonant-initial words, but these are rare.

Later, Mark noted that though the reduced forms strongly predominate,

it looks like non-reduction of the and a is something that everyone does sometimes. But there's a lot to learn about individual and dialect differences, the effects of formality, the rhetorical uses, the effects of phonological and syntactic context, and so on.

It's a fascinating topic, with many interesting twists and turns. For those of you who want to plow through the earlier discussion, here's a selection of postings, first from Language Log and then from Chris Waigl's blog:

ML, 7/9/05: A small wager

ML, 7/10/05: They have ears, but they hear not

ML, 7/20/05: Of thee (and ay) I sing

ML: 7/25/05: The phonetic poetics of “a”

ML, 7/25/05: Could there possibly be a less enticing premise for a blog entry?

DB, 7/26/05: The the the and the thee the

ML, 8/3/05: Emphatic unreduction again

CW, 7/22/05: Thy “thee”s, Ed Felten…

CW, 7/26/05: No word too small

CW, 8/7/05: Show me your vowels!


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