Consonants /s/ versus /Ɵ/, 96 pairs     [sinthin.html]

The spelling of /s/ is <s> initially or <c> in cymbal, and <s>, <ss> or <ce> medially or finally. The /Ɵ/ sound is spelled <th> throughout.

This contrast is between two voiceless fricatives. Among native speakers the replacement of /s/ with /Ɵ/ is known as a lisp (technically an interdental lisp) and is common among young children. The six-year-old Violet Elizabeth Bott in Richmal Crompton's Just William books is able to control William Brown with the threat "I'll thcream, then I'll thcream and I'll thcream and I'll thcream till I'm thick" (William in Trouble, 1927, p. 86). If it persists it is regarded as a speech defect and can be treated by speech therapists. It may be associated with effeminacy and was caricatured as aristocratic in eighteenth century comedy. Since rather few languages use /Ɵ/, the problem for EFL learners tends to be the reverse of the lisp, substituting /s/ for /Ɵ/.

Interesting pairs include:

ensues enthuse
Essex ethics
unsinkable unthinkable
useful youthful

Since /s/ is a common sound, the figure for the mean density is very low at 0.6%. The set makes 59 semantic contrasts, a loading of 61%. The relative scarcity of minimal pairs is slight evidence for the O'Connor hypothesis that language is self-repairing, since this is a troublesome distinction.

baas bath
besought bethought
Bros broth
burst berthed
bypass bypath
cymbal thimble
  cymbals thimbles
eights eighth
ensues enthuse
Erse earth
Essex ethics
face faith
force forth
frost frothed
gross growth
kiss kith
Miss myth
moss moth
mouse mouth
niece 'neath
Norse north
pass path
Perth purse
piss pith
placing plaything
placings playthings
race wraith
sane thane
sank thank
saw thaw
  sawing thawing
sawn thorn
seam theme
  seams themes
seines thanes
serum theorem
sick thick
  sicken thicken
  sickened thickened
  sickening thickening
  sickens thickens
  sickly thickly
  sickness thickness
  sicknesses thicknesses
sigh thigh
  sighs thighs
sin thin
sink think
  sinkable thinkable
  sinking thinking
  sinks thinks
sinker thinker
  sinkers thinkers
sin thin
  sins thins  
  sinned thinned
  sinning thinning
sinner thinner
  sinners thinners
sluice sleuth
soar thaw
   soared thawed
  soars thaws
sole thole
  soles tholes
some thumb
song thong
  songs thongs
sort thought
  sorts thoughts
souse south
suds thuds
sues thews	 
sum thumb
  sums thumbs
  summed thumbed
  summing thumbing
sump thump
  sumps thumps
  sums thumbs
sunder thunder
  sundered thundered
  sundering thundering
  sunders thunders
surd third
tense tenth
  tensely tenthly
truce truth
unsinkable unthinkable
use youth
  useful youthful
  usefully youthfully
  usefulness youthfulness
wits width
worse worth
Xmas Exmouth

John Higgins, Shaftesbury, August 2010.