Rapper Chief Keef
Rapper Chief Keef

I have remarked on the fondness of young Americans–especially African-American rappers and/or people from the New York metropolitan area–for the glottal stop. Now it appears that another of Cockney characteristic, th-fronting, is ready for its U.S. closeup.

Th-fronting is a feature of Cockney–and now, apparently, of Estuary English–in which a th sound is pronounced like an f (as in I fink instead of I think) or v (as in the way the TV show “Big Brother” is commonly referred to in U.K. red-top tabloid headlines: “Big Bruvva”). Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G is a heavy user, and it’s been prominent recently in hip U.S. references to the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as “Keef.”

That same word actually represents the only indigenous U.S. use I’m aware of. It’s in the name of a teenage rapper from Chicago: Chief Keef. His website reports that he was born Keith Cozart but is silent on how Keith became Keef.

NOOB readers are a clever lot, and among them are probably one or two hip-hop fans. If so, I would be grateful for any enlightenment on the phenomenon of th-fronting among the rappers.

31 thoughts on “Th-fronting

  1. On reflection that rings true–thinking of expressions like “down to erff.” I believe (unlike Cockney) it’s only at the end of words, not the beginning.

  2. How is the term “th-fronting” itself pronounced? thuh-FRUHN-tihng? Is the “th” pronounced as the two individual letters’ names: TEE, AYCH, FRUHN-tihng?

    By the way, is it proper British/Standard English to pronounce the name of the letter “h” as AYCH (as Americans say it) or HAYCH (as Irish-born friends of mine in N.Y.C. say it)?

    1. We would normally go with “Aitch”; the “Haitch” is traditionally Irish English. However that’s been changing over the years, like most things.

      1. In Canada, areas settled by the Irish seem to say “Haych” instead of “aych”. But in General, especially in Central Canada, it’s “aych”. I say “aych” but my best friend says “haych” XD

    2. I have heard that Haitch in Australia marks you as a Catholic, because most Australian Catholics were educated either in Christian Brothers schools (and the brothers were all either Irish or educated by Irish people) or by teachers who were taught by Christian Brothers. I can’t vouch for that myself.

  3. I spent 20 years as a Speech Pathologist correcting f/th which American parents don’t usually accept after about age 7 or so as anything but infantile. Not an American thing at all…certainly in white America. I’m hearing glottal stops more often in my kids (early 20’s) in the last few years. And /e/-insertion in final syllabic /n/ (student, didn’t, garden, wooden, etc., etc.) in nearly anyone under 40. Haven’t seen anyone comment on that last in the literature.

  4. @Jan

    What do you mean by ” /e/-insertion in final syllabic /n/”? Does that refer to e.g. [wʊdən] instead of [wʊdn̩] ?

    1. Ugh, I hate that! This hasn’t really hit Canada yet, thank goodness. I’m 21 and my friends and I all say didn’t “didnt”, whereas on American TV shows it always seems to be “didint”. It sounds babyish to me. It’s mostly a female thing as well, fewer men say it. Another American things that I’ve noticed more and more is pronouncing “ing” words like “een”. Like ringeen for ringing and peenk instead of pingk for pink. Also, more of a girl thing. Something American that HAS started happening in Canada is the dropping of the middle “t” in words like internet, which sounds like innerne’. I still say internet. Winner is not a season, WINTER is. LOL Light “r” is also starting to replace the traditional Canadian dark “r”…

  5. For as long as I can remember, many African Americans in the southeast U.S. have replaced the ending ‘th’ with ‘f’ — anytime those letters directly follow a vowel or sometimes an ‘r’ (so not at the beginning of words). Sometimes it happens in the middle of a word, as well.

    Common examples: truth > truf, math > maf, with > wif, without > wif-out,

  6. While AAVE does often replace -th with -f (‘earf’ for ‘earth’), I think that this name should be seen in light of other hip-hop monikers that have a marijuana cultural influence. “Kief” is a very desirable by-product of the preparation of marijuana for smoking.

  7. Th-fronting in adults who have reached tertiary education is as irritating as the reversal of last two consonants of ‘ask’.

    1. Actually, these are both very common in black English or AAVE (African American Vernacular English). It’s pretty much accepted universally among linguists that AAVE is a bona fide dialect with its own grammar rules, lexicon, phonology, etc. Dismissing it as simply “bad English” went out of favor with experts and academics 20-30 years ago.

  8. I also note with amusement that some foreigner speaking English have taken up ‘ve’ and ‘vis’ for ‘the’ and ‘this’ – French and Spanish people, for example. I always want to say to them that it actually means they come across as less well-education. We would much rather hear a French person say ‘ze’ and ‘zis’!

  9. I’m a non-black American who did not grow up around black people and who despises rap “music.” But I say “bofus” for “both of us” and “wifus” for “with us” – just easier to pronounce.

    1. Curious as to what state you’re from… I know a guy who says “wif” for “with” as well, and also pronounces “supposed to” as “posta”… I thought it was just a “him” thing. Does anyone reading this voice the “th” in with? I hear that in older people here in Canada. I use the “th” of “thing” for with, whereas they’d use the “th” from “that” in with.

  10. Youth television [programming aimed at young people and aspiring to “speak their language”] was famously pioneered in the 1980s by the Cockney television producer Janet Street Porter and sometimes satirically referred to as ‘Yoof television”‘

  11. On a TV program “Justified” that is supposed to take place in the hollers and hills of eastern Kentucky (I hear fairly authentic with accents), I spotted th-fronting and in one episode, perhaps th-dropping with the name Keith. One character stated the name and another character humorously translated, using a linguistic term to describe the pronunciation, in order to make it clear to other characters and/or audience. I’m happy to spot what appear to be attempts at authenticity in mainstream media when I see them.

  12. just a heads up, keef is also a marijuana reference. Could be a double entendre more or as well as the affectation.

    As a Kentuckian, I can attest to hill people having a heap of Britishisms. They’re generally descendant from the Scots-Irish folks who moved a similar clime after being pushed from the cities. It’s also why we’re awesome. But it has been shown that for most of the folks who were cut off from the outside world in Appalachia, the language ceased to evolve. Then those folks moved into the valleys and cities. I would hear things like reckon constantly. I thought it was a hillbilly thing until I moved to London.

  13. Both th-fronting and th-stopping are traditional in African American Vernacular English as well as Caribbean English. Its possible that it was already around in colonial times and only now gaines traction in the UK

  14. Just found this article while searching for Th-Fronting – I know it’s 5 years old and I think you probably already know this, but you may want to see this article “” for chief and this article “” for keef (spelled kief).

Leave a Reply to mollymooly Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s