Why do we pronounce "the university" as "thuh university" rather than "thee university"?

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English Club says that usually, we pronounce "the" as "thuh", but when it happens to be in front of a vowel sound, then we pronounce it as "thee".

Why is "the university" pronounced as "thuh" university rather than "thee university"? Isn't "u" a vowel, and shouldn't it therefore be pronounced "thee university"? The page I linked to gives as explanation that "university" is pronounced "youniversity" and this y in there is a consonant sound? But why should y be a consonat sound? For me it's more a vowel sound …

user48590

Posted 2017-01-29T00:05:54.210

Reputation: 187

3

Related: Is pronouncing "The" as "Thee" still correct in titles?"

– Robusto – 2017-01-29T01:03:10.060

1Why initial "u" is pronounce /ju:/ instead of /u:/ is an interesting question in itself. – chepner – 2017-01-29T16:43:48.640

1A lot of languages drop "the" entirely. You rarely hear a Russian say it when they speak in English, as in "Ukraine". And UK-English speakers drop it from both university and hospital. Just sayin' – SDsolar – 2017-01-30T01:00:37.280

You might also ask why owl and ouch are pronounced so similarly. Goes with the rhyme A,E,I,O,U, and sometimes Y and W in unbroken meter. – SDsolar – 2017-01-30T01:01:27.730

It's pronounced "yooniversity". It's a consonant sound. – Boann – 2017-01-30T14:13:06.153

@Boann yoo sounds like a vowel (u) to me. I think it's regional. I'd use thee, but I am Canadian and born to Brit ex-pats. Here in Texas, I hear it used both ways, thuh and thee. – WRX – 2017-01-30T15:08:35.363

@WillowRex "U" is a vowel letter because it makes a vowel sound ("uh"), but its name ("yoo") does not start with a vowel sound. Whereas, say, "F" is a consonant but its name happens to start with a vowel sound ("eff"), hence "an FBI agent", but "a UFC figther". This isn't difficult. – Boann – 2017-01-30T15:55:41.683

@Boann well I guess it is difficult to me because I did not understand your comment. That's fine. It's not necessary to explain yourself to me. – WRX – 2017-01-30T15:57:51.167

Answers

50

In English, the pronunciation of the is based on the sound of the following letter, not which letter it's written with. University is pronounced with a "y" or [j] in IPA, which in English acts as a consonant at the beginning of a word.

In some languages [j] acts as a vowel, but not in English.

Therefore, "thuh".

Curtis White

Posted 2017-01-29T00:05:54.210

Reputation: 1 652

17And it's "a university" rather than "an university" for exactly the same reason. – David Richerby – 2017-01-29T17:00:46.940

1More precisely, it's the following phoneme, and university has an extra consonant at the beginning. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- – 2017-01-29T19:32:05.727

I think it should also be noted that in a lot of dialects, the is simply pronounced "thuh" and almost never "thee" regardless of whether the word starts with a vowel or a consonant. – Aiaimai – 2017-01-30T15:48:53.340

Similarly, it is 'an NBA player', and not 'a NBA player', in spite of the fact of the letter which immediately follows the article is a consonant letter... but it is pronounced [en], so the first SOUND is a vowel sound. – user58319 – 2019-10-31T11:27:12.430

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The umbrella

The apple

The idea.

As an American speaker, I pronounce all of these as "thuh" -- in fact, in normal conversation I blend the vowel sounds together to make one sound:

thuhmbrella

thuhapple

thuhidea.

I going to have to suggest that thuh "English Club" is not thuh definitive source for all things English. There is a wide variety of pronunciations.

The only time I (or other Americans who talk similarly) use "thee" is for emphasis. "Thee" apple means this apple, as different and more important than any other apple in the current context.

[Edit] Anyone who doubts me, just do a YouTube search for "the envelope, please", or "the Oscar goes to ..." British speakers seem to always pronounce it "thee". Many (but not all) of the American-sounding speakers say "thuh".

Andrew

Posted 2017-01-29T00:05:54.210

Reputation: 85 521

Do you speak a particular non-standard dialect? This sounds like a regional pronunciation.

Note to poster, if you don't pronounce "the" as "thee" before vowel sounds, you will still be understood just fine. – Curtis White – 2017-01-29T01:07:58.123

2@CurtisWhite what is "standard"? I mean, sure, as far as Henry Higgins and perhaps every other Englishman is concerned, Americans haven't really ever spoken actual English, but nevertheless. – Andrew – 2017-01-29T01:12:58.673

Well, there is a sort of general American sort of pronunciation (typical of say the Midwest or California), but "thuhapple" gives me a sense of the South, but I could be very wrong. – Curtis White – 2017-01-29T01:20:40.137

I'm from California and while I definitely have some regional quirks, my accent is not anything particular. But I asked my wife, who is from the East Coast, and she pronounced "the apple" in exactly the same way that I do. "Thee" apple would be extra emphasis, like it was the only apple. – Andrew – 2017-01-29T03:00:43.237

4I see. I'm from eastern Canada and I always pronounce the as "thee" before vowel sounds. Saying "thuh apple" is very unnatural to me. – Curtis White – 2017-01-29T03:09:31.720

20As an American from New York and currently living in California, this is not what I do. – Kevin – 2017-01-29T03:50:04.293

@Andrew "with regard to the word ‘university’, the initial sound is actually the consonant sound /j/, so we say ‘a university’." BBC

– Shannak – 2017-01-29T09:34:01.307

2As an american from ohio, ya, we rarely say thee, except for emphasis. – Benjamin Scherer – 2017-01-29T09:55:35.867

5I've found I could say either "thuh umbrella" or "thee umbrella." I don't know if there's a rule distinguishing them. Representing New Jersey. – Matt Samuel – 2017-01-29T11:43:38.680

1This is a long comment, not an answer. – Carsten S – 2017-01-29T12:59:13.203

@CarstenS possibly, but there is no way I can include all that detail in a comment, and if I have to use multiple comments it's far more coherent to take advantage of the formatting available in an answer. But in any case mine is an answer of sorts, just one that says "your question is fundamentally flawed". A useful response to anyone else who might search for the same thing. – Andrew – 2017-01-29T16:44:20.137

I am not saying that you should have posted this as a comment, I am only saying that when you post something as an answer, then you should try to answer the question. – Carsten S – 2017-01-29T16:48:54.027

@CarstenS how is this not an answer? I thought I was quite clear that the source of OP's confusion is simply wrong. But you should probably take this up in /meta instead, if you think I'm totally off-base. – Andrew – 2017-01-29T18:42:34.133

6As John Wells notes in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary: "The English as a foreign language learner is advised to use ðə before a consonant sound (the boy, the house), ði before a vowel sound (the egg, the hour). Native speakers, however, sometimes ignore this distribution, in particular by using ðə before a vowel (which is in turn usually reinforced by a preceding ʔ), or by using ðiː in any environment, though especially before a hesitation pause. Furthermore, some speakers use stressed ðə as a strong form, rather than the usual ðiː." – snailplane – 2017-01-29T21:34:44.983

2@Andrew saying that not everyone makes this vowel/consonant distinction between "thee" and "thuh", while true, doesn't answer OP's question of why people who do make the distinction still say "thuh university". In fact your answer is potentially misleading since it could be taken as saying that the people OP has heard saying "thuh university" must be people who don't make the distinction. – Especially Lime – 2017-01-30T11:27:31.233

@EspeciallyLime AgaIn, probably better discussed on /meta . – Andrew – 2017-01-30T15:57:30.203

5

There are several issues here.

/j/ and /w/ are phonologically consonant sounds in English

Yes, the semivowels /j/ and /w/ are classified as consonant sounds in English, even though phonetically they are like vowels. That’s just how English works. This applies most noticeably to the a/an rule: we say “a university” and “a one-time deal” and as far as I know, no modern English speaker would find *"an university" or *"an one-time deal" acceptable.

Pronunciations of “the”

The form /ði/ is used, no matter what the following sound is, when this word is emphasized. The most common context for this might be a contrast with another determiner like “a/an”.

In non-emphatic consonants, the situation is more complicated. However, the rule you were taught is correct. There are just other factors that can affect pronunciation. I’m taking the following information from “Constraints on definite article alternation in speech production: To “thee” or not to “thee”?” by M. Gareth Gaskell, Helen Cox, Katherine Foley, Helen Grieve, and Rachel O’Brien, which is specifically about British English speakers.

In non-emphatic contexts where the following sound is a consonant, the form /ðə/ is usually used. However, there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of using /ði/ before a consonant sound.

  • second-syllable stress
  • the glide /j/, even more so where it is spelled with the letter <u>

In non-emphatic contexts where the following sound is a vowel, the form /ði/ is usually used. However, there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of using /ðə/ before a vowel sound.

  • first-syllable stress
  • the vowel /i/ or /ɪ/ (the greater likelihood of using /ə/ before these than before other vowel sounds can be seen as a form of dissimilation: it's awkward to have two identical or similar sounds right next to each other)

Despite the existence of factors that increase the likelihood of using the “opposite” form, Gaskell et al. found that the vast majority of the 50 adults in their study closely followed the consonant-vowel rule. So for an English language learner, I would recommend learning to apply this rule, although it’s not a big deal if you use the “opposite” form: native speakers do also sometimes. Obvously native speakers don't have to try to follow this rule (most of them will automatically, but some might not), but this site is not for native speakers.

sumelic

Posted 2017-01-29T00:05:54.210

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