Friday, 16 July 2010


Shane White asks
Could you tell me why the <th> in cloth is voiceless, but the <th> in clothes is voiced? (And indeed, why the vowel in cloth is /ɒ/, but in clothes is /əʊ/?)

The reason cloth has θ but clothes ð lies in the fact that in Old English the th in clothes was between vowel sounds. In words inherited from Old English you regularly get voiced th in this position (compare father, mother) but voiceless th elsewhere (thing, mouth, bath).

Compare north, south with θ but northern, southern with ð.

In the case of cloth-clothes it’s also part of a wider pattern in which a singular noun with a final voiceless fricative is matched with a plural with a voiced fricative: leaf — leaves, half — halves, truth truːθtruths truːðz, house haʊshouses ˈhaʊzɪz. You also get alternation between nouns with θ and verbs with ð: mouth maʊθ but to mouth maʊð, and sheath ʃiːθ but to sheathe ʃiːð, parallel with cloth klɒθ but to clothe kləʊð. At other places of articulation we similarly have shelf ʃelfto shelve ʃelv, use (noun) juːsto use juːz. (But we keep the voiceless f in to knife.)

In the OED there’s a lonɡ note at clothes explaining the history and also discussing the pronunciation with no dental fricative.


  1. close (kləʊz) […] vulgar or careless pronunciation of clothes:

    Do you agree with this? I feel it the opposite way, with kləʊz being the non-marked pronunciation and kləʊðz sounding hypercorrect, near-RP.

  2. I have always had kləʊðz as my citation form, and would consider kləʊz (for me) as an extreme reduction possible only in rapid casual speech. I do not consider clothes and close (v.) homophonous.
    But I know there are other speakers who normally say kləʊz even in formal, monitored speech.

  3. I suppose some people voice the th in truths, but I'd like to know how many -- not me, for one. Slightly surprised to see LPD doesn't even allow the possibility of truːθs. Might have been a case for one of those interesting pie charts?

  4. I agree that clothes with /ð/ is now hypercorrect, and I attribute the fact that i have it to an early-learned spelling pronunciation (I can't remember learning to read or being unable to do so).

    Like other irregularities, these voicing alternations are firmly maintained only in the commonest words: I at least do not have voicing in truth, oath, bath, path, mouth despite their unimpeachable OE origin — for me mouths with /ð/ can only be the 3sg. of the verb, not the pl. of the noun, and bath is not a verb, as generally in AmE. And I dare say oaves, rooves are pretty much recessive now, though spelling helps support f/v alternation better.

  5. John W., thanks. I strongly suspect my own usage without the /ð/ makes me feel this is neutral rather than colloquial.

  6. Perhaps instead of truth-truths I should have used the example youth-youths, for which there IS a pie chart in LPD, showing juːðz to be preferred by 82% in BrE and 39% in AmE.

  7. "House" is unique in having that /s/-/z/ alternation, is it not? I wonder why that is.

  8. I don't know if this is contributing to the discussion, but I say "cloths" for multiples of "cloth" - e.g. face cloths, dish cloths - so there is a plural of cloth which I don't voice the <th>. I live in western Canada.

  9. I keep the voiceless consonant in some of those plural forms. I'm American though. I also, like others here, say "clothes" and "close" the same.

  10. Kenyon & Knott are quite emphatic in their belief that pronouncing the /ð/ in "clothes" is a spelling pronunciation. They write:

    kloz has been the cultivated colloq. pron. for 200 yrs. Dr. Johnson says "always clo's," Sheridan (1780) & Walker (1791) give only kloz. Oxf. Dict. calls it "vulgar or careless". Fowler (Mod. Eng. Usage) denies this and says kloz is the usual pron. [in Engd]. Webster has correctly labeled kloz 'Colloq.' for some 70 yrs. The L[inguistic] A[tlas of the US and Canada] shows an overwhelming majority for kloz. The verb clothes kloðz keeps its ð from clothe kloð & clothes kloðd. The noun has no sg kloð.

    To the above I'd just add my personal observation that German NNSs have a tendency to say [kləʊðɪz], probably because they have enough difficulty distinguishing [ð] and [z] to begin with, without having to put them next to each other. The problem wouldn't arise if they were taught that the "th" in "clothes" is silent.

  11. euxneks

    I think your klɔθs is pretty much standard over a variety of accents.

    It's part of a pattern

    NOUN klɔθ ~ klɔθs, bɑ:θ ~ bɑ:θs
    VERB kləʊð ~ kləʊðz, beɪð ~ beɪðz

  12. "You also get alternation between nouns with θ and verbs with ð: mouth maʊθ but to mouth maʊð, and sheath ʃiːθ but to sheathe ʃiːð, parallel with cloth klɒθ but to clothe kləʊð."

    So it looks like the verb "to mouth" really ought to have the spelling "to mouthe" (like "to sheathe" and "to clothe"). Why the exception? (I know, silly question, but anyway.)

  13. Bertilo

    According to the OED, mouthe was one of the Middle English spellings for the verb, but the e was dropped in Late Middle English.

    Presumably the printers decided that the only function of the e was to disambiguate vowel-letter values, and not consonants.

    This decision held for the pair that John started with kləʊðz and klɔθ with its plural klɔθs. Both, of course, are nouns.

    The question is how to pronounce the noun plural mouths. John's LPD gives only maʊðz. So the logic of your spelling for the verb form is that the noun plural should also be mouthes.

    I'm not sure why, but it looks worse for the noun form.

  14. "Presumably the printers decided that the only function of the e was to disambiguate vowel-letter values, and not consonants."

    But cf. breathe, sheathe, wreathe, seethe, teethe, loathe, soothe.

  15. mollymooly

    OK, another theory bites the dust.

    But can you think of a word with -outhe? Or any reason why verbs in -outh should be an exception?

    And how do you pronounce the noun plural wreaths?

  16. The vowel in cloth is rather puzzling. The regular development from OE clāþ would have been OE ɑː > ME ɔː > EModE > RP əʊ, as we do have in the dissociated plural clothes. The OED says "OE. clá-ðas, ME. clō-thes; the ō remaining in the (originally) open syllable". This, however, explains little because there was never a regular process of shortening in just ANY closed syllable in English. There's ME shortening before (non-homorganic) clusters, which has led to ModE forms like kĕpt (cf. keep, from ME ) and hĭd (< OE dde with a geminate; cf. hide).
    Under cloth, the OED also quotes the NED (1884–1928):
    "The pronunciation of cloths varies: northerners generally say (klɒθs), or (klɔːθs); Londoners usually (klɔːðz) ... though some reduce it to (-klɒθs) in combination, as in table-cloths, neck-cloths; many would say (klɒθs), or (klɔːθs), meaning ‘kinds of cloth’". This is not particularly helpful either; it reflects a period after the Great Vowel Shift, and the vowel is already shortened. (The variants with ɔː are another matter -- an EModE lengthening before voiceless fricatives, which never quite gained ground with ɒ, as in often, loss, cloth, though it did with EModE a/æ in the South of England, e.g. half, class, path.)
    So the shortening in cloth is a merely sporadic sound change, but I haven't found any attempts at explaining it. I've thought of analogy with moth and broth (both have short o in OE), but this seems rather far-fetched.
    Any ideas?

  17. I forgot to mention that since the new plural cloths emerged only in the 17th century, it can't have undergone ME pre-cluster shortening. (If that had been possible, the short vowel could then have been introduced into the sg form by analogical levelling. But alas, that's not the case.)

  18. I’d add the following to the end of the lemma you include:

    Dutch: kleed (=robe), pl. kleden, but klederen = clothes, which in southern dialects becomes kleren.

  19. @H: I'm not sure what variety of Dutch you speak, but "kleren" is the standard Netherlands Dutch form, and in no way limited to "southern dialects". "Klederen" is not contemporary standard Dutch (and in fact a double plural like "kinderen", from earlier "kinder").

    As for the OEDs mentioning of "parallels in other Germanic dialects" (dialects? oh well), it seems they ignore the regular devoicing of final consonants in those "dialects", so I doubt whether we could speak about paralleling here.

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  21. Bertilo et al.: The best we can say is that the removal of -e from mouthe was an ill-considered choice that stuck. The functional load of voicing in th is so low that it makes very little difference for native speakers.

    Mitko Sabev: I do think that analogy is the most likely explanation of the short vowel in cloth. Certainly nothing else can account for the variable pronunciation of troth. GOAT is the historical value, and indeed the OED lists it first, but it also shows LOT and THOUGHT, and for me indeed the word is part of the CLOTH=THOUGHT set. Froth is not recorded in OE, but the OED's evidence shows that it too was shortened somewhere along the way.

    As for the "EModE lengthening [of /ɒ/] before voiceless fricatives, which never quite gained ground", it certainly did gain ground in North America, becoming universal there until obscured over wide areas by the cot-caught (LOT=THOUGHT) merger.

  22. John Cowan

    I think you must be right about mouth(e).

    Oh, and If you want to remove the shorter version of your post, click the dustbin icon...

    OH NO! I now see why you didn't!

  23. The dustbin symbol has returned.

  24. And disappeared again, as has the Subscribe/Unsubscribe links for email notification of further comments on the thread. They have been doing this for some time, and I have asked about it before.

  25. And reappeared again, as has the Subscribe/Unsubscribe link. I do not think this is us. I think it's the blogspot software.

  26. I've lived in the US my entire life, so I've rarely heard any pronunciation other than 'cloze'. But I did know the British often pronounced the 'th'. What really surprised me was the statement that the 's' in 'house' becomes voiced in the plural. I have never heard it pronounced that way that I can recall. In the US, it's always 'houses' with an unvoiced 's'.

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  28. @Anonymous.

    I've lived in the US (Northern California) for the last decade or so, and I predominantly hear the plural noun "houses" with /z/ from native speakers. The only exception I can think of is my wife, who uses /s/: she may have picked it up from her parents who were born in India and have several spelling pronunciations (my wife is US-born and her speech in general betrays no signs of Indian English).

    Here's a random American news report where the reporter says "houses" twice, both times pretty clearly with a /z/. The occurrences are around 2:05 and 2:16.

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  30. @Anonymous:

    While we're on the topic, here's another report containing the word "clothes" at 1:57. I'm pretty sure that there's a /ð/ in there. As a bonus, it also has "houses" with a /z/ at 5:09.