October 16, 2018

Thee and Ay

It’s not often that you learn something about yourself from a stranger’s blog. But that’s what happened to me on Friday. I was sifting through a list of new links to this blog (thanks to Technorati), and I found an entry on a blog called Serendipity, about the way I pronounce the word “the”. It turns out that my pronunciation of “the” is inconsistent, in an interesting way. In fact, in a single eight-minute public talk, I pronounce “the” in four different ways.

(Could there possibly be a less enticing premise for a blog entry than how the blog’s author pronounces the word “the”? Well, I think the details turn out to be interesting. And it’s my blog.)

Here’s the background. The article “the” in English is pronounced in two different ways, unreduced (“thee”), and reduced (“thuh”). The standard is to use the unreduced form when the next word starts with a vowel sound (“thee elephant”), and the reduced form when the next word starts with a consonant sound (“thuh dog”).

After Mark Liberman discussed this on the Language Log, readers pointed out that George W. Bush sometimes pronounces ‘a’ as the unreduced “ay” before a consonant. Bush did this a few times in his speech nominating John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Roberts also used one “thee” and one “ay” before consonants in the ensuing Q&A session.

Then Chris Waigl remembered, somehow, that she had heard me do something similar in a recorded talk. So she dug up an eight-minute recording of me speaking at the 2002 Berkeley DRM conference, and analyzed each use of “a” and “the”. She even color-coded the transcript.

It turns out that I pronounced “the” before a consonant four different ways. Sometimes I used “thee”, sometimes I used “thuh”, sometimes I used “thee” and corrected myself to “thuh”, and sometimes I used “thuh” and corrected myself to “thee”.

Why do I do this? I have no idea. I have been listening to myself ever since I read this, and I do indeed mix reduced and unreduced “the” and “a” before consonants. I haven’t caught myself correcting one to the other, but then again I probably wouldn’t notice if I did.

And now I’m listening to every speaker I hear, to see whether they do it too. Do you?

Comments

  1. Doesn’t the indefinite article preceding a vowel usually become “an”, not “ay”?

    I think the superfluous use of “thee” and “ay” is generally meant to be emphatic, most conspicuously in idioms such as, “not just *ay* computer science professor, but rather Ed Felten–yes, *thee* Ed Felten….”. “Ay” and “thee” can also convey a sense of intended precision, perhaps because they represent the “complete” pronunciation of the articles, as opposed to the “abbreviated” forms used in casual speech. One often hears technical people using “thee” and “ay” when they want to exude an air of authority–particularly if the rest of what they’re saying is otherwise strikingly unimpressive. (A related affectation is to pronounce English “-ses” plurals “-sees”, as if they were derived from Greek, viz., “processees”, “premisees”. Presumably Greek plural endings, being associated with mathematics and science, confer a certain authority on the speaker.)

  2. Dan,

    Regarding “an”: D’oh! You’re right, of course. I corrected the original post.

    Regarding “thee” and “ay” for emphasis: Yes, people do this sometimes, but it is usually accompanied by other forms of verbal emphasis (saying the word louder, or extending its length). What’s odd about my usage is that it doesn’t come with other forms of emphasis, and I don’t think it’s intended for emphasis. The self-correction from one form to the other (in both directions) is hard to explain too.

    Regarding “processees”: This usage seems to be standard among computer scientists. I do it because my teachers and older colleagues did it. I had assumed the reason for this irregular form was to make the plural more easily distinguishable from the singular, especially when the speaker is talking quickly. “Premisees” has the same property, that “es” turns to “ees” when the previous syllable already sounds like “es”.