Friday 29 March 2013


The village of Atherton in Greater Manchester (formerly, in Lancashire) has recently been in the news. It is quite near where I grew up, so I am confident in saying that it is pronounced ˈæðətən.

As we know, the spelling digraph th regularly corresponds to two distinct phonemes in English: θ as in thin and ð as in this. (For the moment we can forget the occasional irregular correspondences, as for example to t in Thomas.)

The rule is easy in word-initial position. In LPD I expressed it like this:

Word-medially, it generally depends on whether or not the word is of Germanic origin:

Since Atherton is obviously of Germanic origin (‘farmstead of a man called Æthelhere’), it is indeed expected that the fricative would be voiced, as also in Brotherton, Netherfield, Rotherham, etc.

As a surname, however, Atherton is often pronounced with a voiceless fricative. I have to wonder how the places of this name in California, Indiana, Ontario and Queensland are pronounced.

Even more surprisingly, Atherstone in Warwickshire, according to the BBC Pron Dict of British Names, has θ (though Wikipedia says it has ð). So does Athelney in Somerset. Athelstaneford in Scotland is a law unto itself, being ˈaθl̩stenfɔrd or even ˈɛlʃənfərd. Scottish Atholl is ˈæθl̩. And the Athenry whose fields are commemorated in song by Irish nationalists is ˌæθənˈraɪ; but then the origin of this name is not Germanic but Celtic (Irish Átha an Rí ‘the king’s ford’).


  1. I live relatively close to Atherton, California, and I and everyone else I know pronounces it with a /θ/. I'm surprised to learn that the British Atherton has a /ð/ in it.

    1. A Dictionary of British Place Names starts the entry with Aderton 1212. So I presume that that means that in 1212 it was recorded and written with a ‹d›. That should then be early Middle English. How was ‹d› then pronounced?

    2. interesting. im here in socal and i instinctively pronounced it with [ð] as soon as i read it. but i could see it easily pronounced voiceless aswell

    3. *also, when i think of a british pronunciation, i think of it as [ˈæθətən]

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  2. Atholl is from Goidelic Athfhotla, usually assumed the mean 'new Ireland' (more precisely 're-Ireland'). Although this may be a (very early) folk etymology, the source of the voiceless fricative is fairly clear.

    Pavel Iosad

  3. There's also Athelhampton, Dorset, with /θ/.

    Regarding Atherstone (the other side of the county to me), I've heard both versions. I note the automatic announcer at London Midland stations uses the variant with /θ/, but then again it also pronounces Coleshill as /ˈkəʊlzhɪl/ whereas locals all say /ˈkəʊzl̩/.

  4. Then there is that rich suburb near San Francisco where Larry Ellison lives and it's probably pronounced ˈæθ ɹ̩t n̩.

    EDIT: Oh, Greg was here before me.

  5. Regarding Athelstaneford – Scottish ‹e› when stressed is open, but when not it is close?

    1. See my book or elsewhere. In Scottish English /e/ is the vowel of FACE and SQUARE; /ɛ/ is the vowel of DRESS and of some NURSE words (e.g 'pearl' but not 'curl'). Nothing to do with stress.

  6. Athelstan and Ethelred normally get θ in modern English.

  7. I found it interesting that the LPD entry for Athelstan gives ˈæθl̩stən -stæn, but adds, in Old English was ˈæðl̩stɑːn. This seems an accurate description of the reconstructed Old English pronunciation corresponding to the normalized spelling Æðelstān (if we agree that short e turns into a schwa before giving rise to the syllabic l), but is also a perfectly well-formed pronunciation in Modern English. Usually Old English pronunciations have to be adapted to be pronounceable in Modern English, mostly due to the vowels, but here the æ in a checked position and ɑː are both vowels that are also used in Modern English.

    Is this why the LPD gives the Old English pronunciation for this particular entry? Because saying Athelstan as in Old English also leads to a plausible Modern English pronunciation? I don't see any mention of Old English pronunciation in a couple of the other Old English-derived entries in the LPD that I looked at. Or keeping in topic, maybe it's because the modern pronunciation of ˈæθl̩stən unexpectedly uses θ despite the Germanic origin of the name?

    Jongseong Park

  8. Daniel McCarthy writes:
    There is an error in today's blog. Athenry comes from Áth an Rí, not Átha an Rí; átha is the genitive singular of áth "ford". Note also that the official form in Modern Irish is Baile Átha an Rí.

  9. I think the point is that ather, athel are not words in ModE, and therefore are automatically pronounced with /θ/. In general, /ð/ is a "dead" phoneme, present only in existing words: any new words entering English get either /θ/ or /d/ even if the source has [ð] (as padre, skordalia). Before I realized this, I had the most extraordinary trouble trying to teach my wife to say Gwynedd: even though the word has no non-English sounds (at least when pronounced in South Walian fashion), she was simply not able to add a novel word containing /ð/ to her vocabulary, and it came out of her mouth with /θ/ every time.

    You omit the rule for word-final th, which has /ð/ where a final e has fallen and /ð/ otherwise, except that the pronunciation of with is variable. Finally, the words rhythm, algorithm anomalously have /ð/, presumably by anticipation; brothel historically has /θ/, being derived from earlier bordel, though some people use /ð/ instead.

    1. The rule for word-final th is in LPD, though I didn't reproduce it here.

      I think you meant "...and /θ/ otherwise". (Cf breathe but breath.) The word smooth is an anomaly (OE smóð).

    2. I think there's another explanation for the trouble with Gwynedd. As far as I can tell, all the words with final ð apart from with and its compounds have it preceded by a diphthong or long monophthong, and tend to be monosyllabic or with final stress. By contrast there seem to be a reasonable number of words where final θ is preceded by a short vowel and often an unstressed one. I can't think of real examples of maybe novel words with final ð that fit the pattern, but I'd hazard a guess that if you were to make up some nonsense words like treɪð, gloʊð, striːð, nuːð, bɪˈsnaɪð, she'd have no trouble with them.

    3. Come to think of it, you could try Pontypridd.

    4. John: Yes, "and /θ/ otherwise" is what I meant.

      Alan: I just tried her on all of them, repeatedly in different order. She pronounced all of treɪð, gloʊð, striːð, nuːð, bɪˈsnaɪð voiceless but lenis, and as such as recognizable /ð/ phonemes. Pontypridd, however, definitely has /θ/. I also tried some nonsense words with /θ/ and of course got /θ/ back.

  10. I have been reading Graeme Shorrocks's A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area recently. On page 376 of part 1, he gives "Atherton" as ['a̠ðət‿ʔn̩]. He doesn't specify if this is the town or the surname, but I would have thought that he would have stated if there were a different in pronunciation between the two. He's not exactly light on detail.

    Would the residents of Atherton, Greater Manchester (and nearby) pronounce the surname "Atherton" in the same way that they pronounce the name of their village?

  11. As an Athelstan myself (usually shortened to Athel) I was very interested in John Cowan’s explanation of why it’s always ˈæθl̩stən when I’ve heard it, whether for me or for other people with the name (like the science popularizer Athelstan Spilhaus), but certainly wasn’t for the first King of All England (though he was called that in history lessons I had 60 years ago, likewise Ethelred the Unready also had θ).

  12. Do you regard θ and ð as allophones of a single phoneme? Much of the way they behave (and much of the discussion above of the rules that decide which one is used in which word) suggests that they are, but just about any native speaker of English will regard them as easily distinguishable sounds, so they OUGHT to be different phonemes. I've always thought it odd how difficult it is to find a minimal pair, given that they're clearly different. One usually needs to include archaic words, as in soothe/sooth, or words that people don't normally say, as in teeth/teethe (as a back formation from teething). About the only common words that form a minimal pair seem to be loathe and loth.

    1. There don't seem to be many minimal pairs, but John Higgins's site lists a few more, to which add thistle / this'll and possibly ether / either.

    2. Although he uses the character Ɵ (U+019F LATIN CAPITAL LETTER O WITH MIDDLE TILDE) in place of θ (U+03B8 GREEK SMALL LETTER THETA).

    3. Perhaps a bit dodgy as many people won't know that they're "supposed" to be different, but Louth (Lincolnshire town)/Louth (Irish county) is a good one for those in the know.

      dʒɔnəθən dʒɔːdn

    4. There's another possibility; they could be different phonemes in some phonological environments, and the same phoneme in others. This happens with vowels in English. For example, in the pin/pen merger, /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ are merged before /n/, and for me /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ are merged before /g/. This doesn't happen to consonants much in English, so we aren't expecting it, but I believe there are some languages where it does. And it seems from the evidence above that there are some English speakers who handle /θ/ and /ð/ this way. This may even explain why with gets pronounced using both /θ/ and /ð/.

    5. "in the pin/pen merger, /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ are merged before /n/"

      Seen on the web: "Our Guardrails only need to withstand 200 pounds of pressure, which, since they are made of the same high tinsel steel, this is not an issue."

    6. @Peter Shor: The variation in the pronunciation of "with" goes back to at least the sixteenth century, where both strong and weak pronunciations are attested. Compare "of" and "off", which were originally variant pronunciations of the same word.

  13. True, but still a very nice site, I think.

    Incidentally, I found the couple of extra pairs mentioned above by running my own automated search through the Unisyn list (or specifically, through an accent-specific lexicon for RP extracted from it using the scripts they provide). It seems a pretty useful resource.

    1. Above comment failed to get indented properly - meant to be a reply to Steve.

  14. Peter Shor of Shor's algorithm? Wow. I feel like I've seen a comment from Albert Einstein.

    If you are that Peter Shor and you went to Tamalpais High School, in Mill Valley, California, then you were around ten years too late to be taught by my former wife.

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