Another Function of Silent Final <e>: Voiced <th>
1. So far you have worked with three functions of silent final <e>:
a. A final <e> can mark a preceding vowel as being long in the patterns Ve# and VCe.
b. A final <e> can mark a <c> in front of it as being soft so that the <c> is pronounced [s].
c. A final <e> can mark a <g> in front of it as being soft so that the <g> is pronounced [j].
2. There is one other consonant whose sound final <e> can mark. Say these two sentences carefully, paying special attention to the last sound you hear in each underlined word:
I could not get my breath.
I could not breathe.
3. You should hear a difference between the final consonant sounds in the two words. The difference is called voicing. The <th> sound at the end of breathe is voiced. But the <th> sound at the end of breath is unvoiced.
In the front of people's throats you can see a lump that we sometimes call the “Adam's apple.” That lump is actually the voice box, and it contains the vocal cords. When we pronounce voiced sounds, we make those vocal cords buzz. When we pronounce unvoiced sounds, we don't buzz them. That buzzing sound is what we call voicing.
4. The voiced <th> sound at the end of breathe is written [th]. The voiceless <h> sound at the end of breath is written [th].
So the pronunciation of breath would be written [breth], and breathe would be written [brth].
5. Pronounce these words carefully. If you are unsure of any, ask for help or look them up in the dictionary. Underline the words that end with voiced [th]. Then sort them into the matrix below:
Words whose final sound is ...
a silent final <e>
no silent final <e>
6. A silent final <e> marks a preceding vowel as long, a preceding <c> or <g> as soft, and a preceding <th> as voiced.
Word Venn. In circle A put only words that contain the sound [th]. In circle B put only words that end with a silent <e>. In circle C put only words that contain the sound [u]:
The difference between unvoiced [th] and voiced [th] can be a subtle one to hear. You might ask puzzled students to pronounce bath and bathe a few times, pressing their fingers lightly against the front of their throats. They should be able to feel the vocal cords vibrating at the end of bathe, indicating the presence of voicing.
The sound [th] is quite restricted in its occurrence: It occurs rarely in consonant clusters, usually with [r], as in farther, northern, and worthy. It also occurs in the word rhythm. Usually it occurs with a vowel after it, as in that, then, their, and other function words or with a silent final <e> after it. The only known noteworthy holdouts are the verb mouth and the adjective and verb smooth, both with [th] in final position with no silent <e>. For more on [th] see AES, pp. 384-86.