An interesting John McWhorter post at Language Log:

Tonight an actor said AND THAT’S WHY I’LL TELL THEM AS SOON AS I CAN in rapid, casual style, but he inserted a note of falseness by pronouncing THEM as “THEHM” rather than the way any native English speaker would pronounce it in that sentence, “THUM.” “THEHM” did not aid clarity in any way — if he had said “THUM” the audience would have still known exactly what he was talking about. He said “THEHM” out of a sense that this is what the word “really is

But actually, “THEHM” is just the full form. “THEHM we can talk about,” for example. “Me and THEHM went yesterday.” But just as often, English makes use of a second form, the short one, THUM. By no means a lapse or mere static, THUM is absolutely required of anyone who wants to speak English without sounding like a Martian, or a competent but not quite acclimated newcomer to the language. But because our writing conventions “unravel” the language and transcribe both the full and short forms as THEM, the actor is often distracted into supposing that always saying “THEHM” is good form, “rendering the text properly” Actors erupt in these phony “THEHM”s all the time — I have even heard actors pull this when spouting the vibrantly choppy, earthy vernacular of David Mamet plays.


  1. Interesting. One of my minor irritations is rather similar: in UK English, people failing to distinguish between the two forms of “the”, depending on whether the following word begins with a vowel or consonant (i.e. THEE apple vs. THUH dog). A notable offender is the presenter Ben Vogel, who invariably uses THUH.

  2. /ði/ is also used as an emphatic form of ‘the’. A bit of dialog from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “The Miles Gloriosus?” “The the himself.”

  3. This phenomenon (which does not, as far as i know, have a distinct name) is more general than just English articles. I discovered it when i was trying to revive “quantitative prosody”. Stress changes the quality & often the quantity of the vowel in a syllable; thus no system is complete that fails to take vowel bipolarity into account…
    Also, the problem has a historical dimension. Some pronunciation changes are occuring in our lifetime. One sort is the shift from iambic to trochaic in disyllables of French origin (i identify it with the word “adult” where i first noticed it). This is partly a mainstreaming of a solecism, but also can be seen as a regermanification.
    Needless to say, it will be many decades before the end of his evolution becomes apparent.

  4. In reading Old English poetry aloud, I have always wondered whether the unstressed pronouns schwa’d out this way. My ear is pretty sure the stressed ones never did.
    Are there however dialects of English that don’t schwa out “them” to “thum?” It doesn’t strike my ear as alien, as it apparently does yours; it’s just just not my dialect. Just as the distinction between “Don” and “dawn” doesn’t offend my ear — it doesn’t feel wrong to me (my father in fact makes this distinction), it’s just not what I do.

  5. as it apparently does yours
    The quoted paragraphs are from McWhorter; I think I agree with him but would have to hear examples of the usage he’s talking about to make up my mind.

  6. I would actually almost always condense “thum” to “um” in those sentences, merging “him” and “them”. “Give ’em the money”, etc.
    As far as the New Orlean’s “Where ya at?” –> “Yat?” on the other thread, with people I know pretty well I’ll normally use “What’s up” –> “Tsup?” Does that make me quaint and ethnic?

  7. oops. sorry about the (implicit) misattribution.

  8. (i.e. THEE apple vs. THUH dog)
    Hunh. I may be showing my age, but in grade school we were chided for pronouncing “the” as “thuh” (Northern CA if that clears it up for anybody).

  9. I think we were too, but that’s because teachers didn’t (and doubtless don’t) understand clitics.

  10. didn’t (and doubtless don’t) understand clitics
    Hn! Men.
    (Somebody had to do it.)

  11. I try to avoid saying the word “clitic” because, well, I don’t swear. I never noticed that “fricative” sounded close to a bad word, though, until I said it to my dad and he acted shocked.

  12. M o I: I was only referring to UK English. I can’t think of any trad dialects here that use a schwa for “the” when a vowel follows. The examples I’ve heard (i.e. THUH apple, etc) have come from otherwise RP speakers.
    [Edited per author’s request — LH.]

  13. I want to google “clitic,” but I’m afraid to, given the nature of today’s internet….

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    Here in dublin i think “the arts” is thuh followed by a glottal stop except when it is said on radio or television where thee might be used. The apples or the artichokes would be more like th’apples or th’artichokes without uh or glottal stops.

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