Can English words start with th?

I am delighted that my grandchildren have learnt the word digraph in the reception class in their primary schools. A digraph is a sequence of two letters that together represent a single sound. One English digraph is <th>. This digraph is, in fact, used to spell two different consonants:

  • a voiceless consonant, as in the word written as <think>. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the symbol for this sound is θ.
  • a voiced consonant, as in the the word written as <this>. The IPA symbol for this sound is ð.

English words starting with ð

As far as I know, English words are free to start with the unvoiced consonant θ—though there are some restrictions on sequences of θ followed by another consonant. However, very few English words start with the voiced consonant /ð/. In fact, the only such words are:

  • the definite article and some demonstratives
  • a personal pronoun
  • words denoting something far from the speaker

Article and demonstratives

The most common words starting with /ð/ are the definite article <the> and the demonstratives <this> and <that> and their plurals <these> and those>.

Also in this category is perhaps <thus> (meaning in this way).

Personal pronouns

This voiced consonant also appears in some personal pronouns:

  • the 3rd person plural <they> and its inflected forms <them>, <their> and <theirs>
  • the archaic 2nd person informal singular <thou> and its inflected forms <thee>, <thy> and < thine>

Far from the speaker

Some other words starting with this voiced consonant form one part of a set of three. For instance, <there> is one member of a set whose other members are <here> and <where>. In these sets, a word:

  • starts with /h-/ to denote something near the speaker (a proximal form)
  • starts with /th-/ to refer to something far from the speaker (a distal form)
  • starts with /wh-/ to ask a question (an interrogative form)

The following table lists these forms:

Near
Here
Hence
Hither

Far
There
Thence
Thither

Question
Where
Whence
Wither

Some of the words in this table also form compounds. The commonest is probably <therefore>. Some others include <therefrom>, <thereto>, <thereabout> (and the adverb <thereabouts>) and <thenceforth>. Many of these other forms are now archaic or legalistic.

Another word that falls into a similar pattern as those in the table is <then> (at that time). It has an interrogative counterpart <when> (at what time), but there is no ‘hen’ (to convey the meaning at this time = now).

The word <than> was originally the same form as <then> and was spelled the same way, but eventually came to be distinguished in both pronunciation and spelling.

Analysis

Each category listed above is plausibly analysed as containing an element [th-] conveying the meaning ‘far from the speaker’. Similarly, words such as <here> and <where> are plausibly analysed as starting with an element pronounced as [h-] or [w-].

Linguists call such elements of meaning ‘morphemes’. Morphemes can be free—if they can appear alone—or bound if they can only appear as part of a word. So the elements [th-], [h-] and [w-] mentioned in the preceding paragraph are bound morphemes.

So, in summary, no English word can start with the voiced sound [ð] unless that sound is a bound morpheme meaning ‘far from the speaker’. Exceptionally, the bound morpheme means ‘near the speaker’ in two forms: <this> and <thus>.

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