Anovver Fing About Th-Fronting

In our discussions of dialect evolution in the UK, a common denominator is th-fronting. To review: th-fronters turn ‘th‘ words into ‘f’ or ‘v’ words: ‘thing’ becomes ‘fing,’ ‘bother’ becomes ‘bovver,’ and ‘both’ becomes ‘bof.’ It’s a feature common in broad London accents.  Note Cockney celebrity Danny Dyer‘s pronunciation of ‘thing,’ ‘with,’ and ‘third’ in this clip:

It’s clear that this feature is spreading in the UK, but not entirely clear why.  Linguist Paul Kerswill, who has studied the spread of ‘London’ accent features in the UK, has accumulated some interesting data about ‘th-fronting,’ particularly in his work on British children’s speech in the late-90’s with colleague Ann Williams*.

At the time, there was clearly still a working-class/middle-class divide in terms of th-fronting. In Reading, a city on the outskirts of Greater London, rates were 0% for middle-class girls compared to over 80% for working-class boys. There was also a striking gender split, particularly in the town of Milton Keynes, where th-fronting occurred less than 10% of the time for middle-class girls but over 30% for boys.

But perhaps the most impressive observation gleaned from Kerswill and Williams’ data is the geographical spread of ‘th’-fronting. The highest incidence of this feature was found in working-class boys in Hull, a city in Northern England, far from Greater London.  Quite a journey!

We tend to think of th-fronting as a marker of London accents, but this is perhaps stereotypical. As the feature has also been a long-time feature of the Bristol accent, it might more accurately be thought of as a Southern English feature. Within the past fifty years, however, th-fronting occurs in localities far from its heartland, in urban areas of Northern England and Scotland.

The fact that th-fronting seems more common among males suggests a ‘covert prestige’ feature, a working-class shibboleth that while stigmatized, becomes a secret source of pride. The question, of course, is how the feature entered the speech of young men in such far-flung places in the first place.

As I’ve said before, what deepens the mystery is that this feature clearly can arise of its own accord without outside influence. Some accents in the American South (along with varieties of African-American Vernacular English) front ‘th’ words in a manner identical to Cockney. So to what degree is this feature spreading, and to what degree is it emerging independently?

Williams, Ann & Kerswill, Paul (1999). Dialect levelling: change and continuity in Milton Keynes, Reading and Hull. In Paul Foulkes & Gerard Docherty (eds.) Urban voices. Accent studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold. 141–162.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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16 Responses to Anovver Fing About Th-Fronting

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    While I’m familiar with th-fronting, it occurred to me that it’s common in very young children when they first learn to speak English. I distinctly remember a time, when I was no older than three, when I called my mom “muvver.’ Do you know of any research about this, and whether there is any connection, real or implied?

    • trawicks says:

      I actually do recall reading something along those lines. Children are a huge factor in linguistic change. In many areas of high immigration, it strikes me that ‘standard’ /th/ is very easily superseded by non-standard varieties. Dental fricatives are not just rare–they’re also difficult to pronounce for non-natives in a way that other ‘rare’ English vowels (/r/, say) are arguably not. Between children’s AND L2 speakers natural difficulty with this sound, it’s easy to see how it fails to take hold in many native urban accents of English.

      The mystery is why in some accents/dialects (Cockney and AAVE) this becomes and ‘f’ or ‘v,’ while in others (New York City and Liverpool) it’s more of a dentalized ‘t’ or ‘d.’ (A related mystery is why ‘s’ and ‘z’ never become viable /th/ options in native English accents, despite being common realizations among L2 speakers).

      • Peter S. says:

        Which phoneme sounds closest to /th/ for L2 speakers probably depends on what language they grew up speaking. I remember having an argument with a German whom I couldn’t convince that /x/ actually sounded like /k/ to English speakers (apparently they’re quite different-sounding to Germans). Whether /th/ gets replaced by /t/ or /v/ may depend on which nationalities contributed to the start of this phenomenon. And it may never get replaced by /s/ because, to native English speakers (or to me, at least), /s/ and /th/ don’t really sound very much alike.

  2. Neen says:

    I’m from Derry, (Northern) Ireland and I thought it might be interesting to note that I tend to say (as do many others from my town) “l” instead of “th”, especially in words such as ‘brother’ (which comes out more like ‘bruller’/’broller’). It’s really weird and people who don’t speak with my accent usually have difficulty understanding this when I first meet them.

    • trawicks says:

      People from Derry also seem to drop their ‘th’s entirely: I heard someone from Derry pronounce ‘father’ as something that sounded quite like ‘for.’ The ‘l’ seems to be kind of the step in between.

  3. Diarmuid says:

    I think someone else mentioned this on here last time this topic was discussed, but I have even heard th-fronting in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I can’t answer your question(s) though.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    In the UK think this is a case of individual working-class accents innovating then being reinforced by various factors:

    1. The dominant culture (often represented through schoolteachers) rejects fronting strongly, so reinforcing it as a badge of working class identity.
    2. Immigrants often have difficulty with this sound, so adopt fronting. Though white East Yorkshire (Hull, Goole, Scunny -yeah, I know, they pretend to be in Lincs) front a lot, in West Yorks fronting is spreading from the Asian community to the white community, where it is still a minority feature.
    3. The media depicts fronting in working class London characters, this reinforces those dialects (like Hull and Glasgow) that have developed it independently.
    4. Fronting requires less tongue muscle movement than the two “th” consonants, which is why children take a long time to master the latter. Why use the harder sound when you can communicate the same meaning more efficiently in terms of energy expenditure with another sound?

    Number 4 is, for me, the reason fronting keeps popping up in dialects with little no contact with each other.

    • trawicks says:

      What I find somewhat fascinating about #4 is that separate accents independently develop the same SYSTEM of th-fronting. I’m mentioned this before: both Cockney and AAVE feature as allophones of /th/ [f], [v] and [d]. Both dialects distribute these allophones in almost the exact same way: [f] substitutes unvoiced ‘th’ in all positions, [v] voiced ‘th’ word-medially, and [d] word-initially.

      • boynamedsue says:

        good point about AAVE and Cockney, but I’m pretty sure that Yorkshire fronting exclusively uses [v] for voiced “th”.

        “‘av you seen all Vem blokes what work at ‘Tescos”

        • Ed says:

          There is the “dee-dah” notion that Sheffielders use [d] for initial voiced “th”, but I am yet to meet a single Sheffielder that does this (and I lived there for a year). I think that it’s either an urban myth or something that died out a long time ago.

      • Michael F. says:

        I’ve only heard th-fronting at the middle and end of words in AAVE, e.g., “smoov” for “smooth” and “brova” for “brother”. Also “toof” for “tooth”.

        I’ve also heard th-fronting word-initially for voiced th in Cockney (contrary to the findings of some linguists), e.g., “vis” for “this”. Tollfree mentions this as a possibility in her paper on South East London English too. I think it was from 1999.

    • dw says:

      4. Fronting requires less tongue muscle movement than the two “th” consonants, which is why children take a long time to master the latter. Why use the harder sound when you can communicate the same meaning more efficiently in terms of energy expenditure with another sound?

      But the interesting question is why, after two millennia, the English of England is losing its dental fricatives now. Presumably they haven’t suddenly got harder to pronounce than they used to be!

      Of course, if all sounds that require more energy were eliminated, languages would end up consisting exclusively of sounds such as [a] or [ə].

      It’s interesting to compare England with the USA. Many of the same factors are present: immigrants who find the sounds difficult, and a subgroup of the population (African-Americans, in the case of the USA) who often front the dental fricatives. Yet I don’t think that it’s spreading to other groups in the US.

      • trawicks says:

        It’s never really gained hold here in the States, outside of AAVE and a handful of regional accents. A possible reason: taking into account the diffusion model of dialect spread, features spread from larger cities to smaller cities more than they spread to the rural areas in between. And in both America and the UK, non-standard /th/ almost appears to have spread from the largest cities (London and New York) to smaller cities (London to Bristol, Cardiff, Hull, etc, and New York to Philadlphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and who knows where else). ‘London th’ (i.e. th-fronting) has become common in British cities, just as ‘New York th’ (th-stopping) is extremely common in American cities. Not a rock solid theory by any means, but intriguing nonetheless.

  5. Sooryan FM says:

    Popular London accents sound so inelegant.
    Popular Dublin accents sounds so classy.

  6. Ed says:

    It is possible that TH-fronting has been around in Hull for a long time. As far as I’m aware, no one before Kerswill & Williams had studied the dialect of anywhere near Hull. It may pre-date the onset of TH-fronting in London.

    Hull is one of those cities that has a distinctive dialect but it doesn’t get much attention. Stoke-on-Trent is another case.

  7. Rossall says:

    Pre-WW2 I remember my darling grandmother’s beautiful soft Irish accent. She used to drop the ‘h’ completely and say ‘tings’ like ‘tirty-tree’ …
    cf. “… the th sound is simply replaced with a t (unvoiced) or a d (voiced). ‘So do ya see the tirty tree and a tird trees over dere? Dat’s right!’ …”
    http://www.fluentin3months.com/speak-like-the-irish/