Does the does of those does rhyme with buzz, or with flows? Or with neither?
As it happens, I was thinking of these:
You might have guessed, because doe rhymes with go. These pretty four-legged does rhyme with those. It’s pleasing to the ear, which is always a good start. You might have guessed it because those does, in the sense of to do, doesn’t fit the standard English grammatical model. Those is plural, does (as a verb) is singular. If you know any English at all, your brain will have searched for a better possibility – doe, a deer.
I’m writing all this because, as I started writing this post about pronouncing the soft English th of those, it struck me how hard and how swiftly our brains work to choose the right pronunciation when there isn’t enough information on the page to make it clear. The two words, those does, with no context and no pictures, don’t give up many clues. But your brain will have gone into Sherlock Holmes mode: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
If your brain knows anything about English syntax, it knows that you need a plural noun after those. So it will give you does as a plural noun and, for the sake of the sound of the thing, will tip you towards imagining does to rhyme with those. Brains like patterns and rhyme is as good a pattern as any.
Rhyme helped my own brain choose the word does in the first place – all I needed was a word that started with d. A plural word to fit with those. I could have chosen those ducks or those doughnuts. But there would have been no fun in ducks or doughnuts. My brain preferred the musical rhyme of four-legged does.
Even if you’re not a native speaker of English, or didn’t know that doe is the name for a female deer, your brain will have offered you the word anyway and, like an enthusiastic teacher, given you a hint to look it up, to find out what it meant.
Which is all rather a long introduction to my original idea – to give a quick exercise for all the non-native singers of English who struggle to hear the difference between the soft th of those, the, they, this and the harder sound of the English d. It’s very, very, very important to get the sound right when you sing in English. Like this.
You can’t avoid the soft th of English. The is the most common word in English. Th is not a difficult sound, but you’ll need to educate your tongue if you want to make it properly. You need to give your tongue the right muscle memory. Those does is your personal tongue gym for this sound. When you make the th sound, your tongue must come out between your teeth. Here is a BBC video to help. Even if you think you’re making the sound perfectly correctly, take a look at the video. You might be surprised.
If you push your tongue forward a tiny bit, so that it feels a bit different from a d but stays pushing behind the back of your front teeth, you’ll make an unattractive, thick sound that isn’t d, but isn’t th either. That sound won’t work when you sing in English – an English native speaking audience will get distracted by the sound you’re making. To them, it sounds ugly. And you sound ill. Like this.
Imagine you’re playing the trumpet. The way you arrange your tongue, lips and mouth affects the sound you blow. It’s the same when you sing. To make the soft th you must put your tongue out a little. Feel the air finding its way out, vibrating between your tongue and your top teeth. Enjoy the sensation.
Practise. Say those does over and over. On your bike, alone in the lift, while you’re cooking supper. Train your tongue. There’ll come a day when your tongue finds the sound easy to produce. You’ll have created a muscle memory and the soft English th will be as easy for you as it is for native English speakers.
If you’re a native speaker of English, marvel at your ability to make the soft th sound without having to think about it. It’s amazing how we pick up and refine these things as small children. I can bet you don’t remember spending hours trying to arrange your tongue exactly right to make a soft th sound. And you didn’t have to wait until school to be taught it.
If you look at an English speaker saying the, those, these, they, you have to concentrate really hard to see the tip of their tongue actually move out between their teeth. It’s all over in a millisecond. Watch Mary Hopkins, in close up, singing Those Were The Days here. As an adult, could you have worked out how she’s making that soft th sound? And copied her exactly? It would be hard to know where to focus your attention.
Once you can make the soft th sound correctly, the world of English is your oyster. You can move onto the strong th sound of Under My Thumb without it sounding like Under My Dumb. Your tongue will enjoy the exercise. Feel it move between the d of difference and down, the soft th of the girl, the change, the way etc., and the powerful th of thumb and truth. Here‘s a helpful BBC video to remind you of the harder th sound. You have just enough time to practise before International Women’s Day on March 8th:
By the way – Mick Jagger sings Under My Thumb differently these days – changing girl to woman, getting rid of the squirming dog who’s just had her day and time-travel lyrics like her eyes are just kept to herself, while I, I can still look at someone else. You can hear the 2006 version here. And feel that Mick, and the world, have grown up.
I prefer Mick’s jacket in the 1966 version. But you’d have to be singing in pure, knowing, post-modern irony to get away with the old Under My Thumb lyrics these days. Or be Austin Powers. Which shows that the world is inching forwards. I hope.
© Sing Better English, 2015