You Can’t Say “Teeth” Without Teeth: Why Kids Sound Different When They Lose Their Baby Teeth
Go ahead. Say it aloud right now, or mouth it quietly so people don’t worry about you.
You may have noticed that it’s the “th” sound at the end of “teeth” that really requires your front two incisors. This sound is made by touching the tongue tip behind the top teeth and squeezing air through. There are actually two different ways we say the “th” when it shows up in a word. One is the voiceless sound, where we just squeeze the air through, like in the word “think.” For other words, like “there,” we use our vocal chords as we make the sound.
But those aren’t the only sounds our teeth help us make. Teeth are needed for a variety of sounds we use in the English language, like the “sh” sound in “shoe,” the “f” in “friend,” the “s” in “smile,” and the “ch” in “chocolate.” Just think of what you would sound like if you had no front teeth and you tried to say “she sells seashells by the seashore!”
The sounds made with the tongue touching the front teeth are called dental sounds, and a couple of these have shaped how we communicate today. Over the last 10,000 years, our jaws have changed from having our top and bottom teeth directly aligned to having more of an overbite. The overbite lets us say “f” and “v” sounds more easily, and experts believe language has changed because of this.
Most of us probably don’t really pay attention to our teeth as we talk. There was a time, however, when all of us experienced some difficulty when it came to the dental sounds. It likely coincided with a visit from the Tooth Fairy and made you think of a popular holiday song about all you want for Christmas.
That’s right! When kids lose their two front teeth, they often find it hard to say certain words. The “s” sounds are especially tricky, and it is common for a lisp to develop when they have that gap. As most children start to lose their baby teeth around the age of six, they usually have no trouble reverting back to correct pronunciations once the permanent teeth grow in.
Sometimes, a child may have to lose their front teeth at a very early age. If they are still learning to speak, this might affect how they pronounce words, even when their permanent teeth do grow in. In this case, a speech-language pathologist can help teach the child how to place their tongue and create better speaking habits.
The best way to make sure we can say our dental sounds clearly and correctly, in childhood and adulthood, is to make regular visits to a dentist and practice good oral hygiene. If you have healthy teeth, there is little to no chance you will ever have to deal with missing teeth. So brush those pearly whites twice daily, give them a floss, and call up your dental office. They’ll be happy to speak with you!