Did you know that clothes can be pronounced without the TH sound - but also with it?
For many Americans, this may actually come as a surprise.
It sure did for me, and I was born and bred in America – not to mention I’ve taught English as a second language around the globe!
I’ve called many states home: Washington, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, New York, California, and even the Nation’s capital. But I’ve also resided outside of the country – in Asia and many European countries. Bottom line: I’ve seen a lot of the world, yet I had never in my life so much as had a hint of the possible existence of the word clothes with the voiced TH.
As a teacher abroad in both Asia and Europe, I had been asked by my (non-native) students about this word’s pronunciation. But I just assumed their inquiry was due to the misleading spelling of the word. (I mean just think about trying to explain the spelling of words like “one”, “two”, or “Wednesday” to people learning English! Language is not always evident…it’s just the way it is.) So unfortunately, at the time, the possibility of more was dismissed.
My insight into the perplexities of clothes changed upon embarking on the creation of TA-DA!’s first talking picture dictionary – and my blissful ignorance was left abruptly by the roadside. Our sound engineer Jesse Lewis introduced me to a family of fabulous kids from Boston (all native speakers, born and bred in America) who proceeded to read all of the words from our dictionary into a microphone. Record scratch! I heard this:
Say what? Every person from that family proceeded to pronounce the TH. I was perplexed to say the least. Definitely a head-scratching moment.
And just like that, my world was rocked, and I entered into the next level of word and grammar nerd-dom.
Enter a second family whom we recorded for the dictionary here in California, where I reside now, and they too pronounced the TH. So I approached both of TA-DA’s artists (who are also both California natives, growing up not far from one another, in fact) and it got weirder. Kelsey pronounced the TH sound, but Michelle did not. What gives?
I got nerdier and started poking around, asking the fabulously bizarre question, “Do you pronounce the TH in the word clothes?” It was a mixed bag with origins that were paradoxical or just plain nonsensical.
I turned to Siri:
My favorite voice recognition software seemed to clearly recognize and validate both.
Okay, what about popular and reputable dictionaries?
The best-selling American dictionary Merriam Webster included both the TH and O pronunciations of the word clothes, as well as the visual, phonetic spelling of both: [klōz] also [klōt͟hz]
But the Google dictionary only provided the TH pronunciation, while showing the phonetic versions of both.
Dictionary.com only pronounced the O version, while also showing the phonetic versions of both.
And then good ol’ Macmillan pronounced the TH version, while only showing the phonetic representation of the O pronunciation.
I’m confused! What about you? What gives?
I turned to my team’s expert linguist Charles Chang, who has been formally schooled in all things language at Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Rice, SOAS (University of London), and Seoul National University in South Korea (for real). Suffice it to say, he knows a thing or two about language. This is what he had to say:
I say the word clothes both ways: with the 'O' ('th'-less) pronunciation in normal conversational speech, but with the 'TH' pronunciation when I'm trying to be especially clear. In other words, I usually use the 'O' pronunciation except in certain circumstances, which is also consistent with my general impression of what many English speakers do. Saying a 'th' and then a 'z' sound (spelled 'es' in clothes) right afterwards is tricky, because they are similar types of sounds (so-called "fricatives" in linguistics parlance)! So, it isn't surprising that the more economical pronunciation omitting the 'th' is so common. Still, literate speakers tend to know that the word is spelled with a 'th', so in circumstances where they might refer to their knowledge of the written form (such as in careful speech) you might see someone who otherwise would only use the 'O' pronunciation adopt the 'TH' pronunciation. (That's me!)
Wow, amazing. Thanks, Charles!
All of this food for thought has only wet my appetite. I want to know more! … Do all Boston natives pronounce the TH? Do certain cities? States? Regions? How did the differences develop and where and how is the line drawn? What are schools teaching? Is there an accepted rendition per area?
Language is indeed magical.
And with that, it’s time to start this day, get out of this robe, and put on some beautiful clothes.
— Michelle Glorieux