Two people in the past week have requested information on pronouncing the definite article, “the.” This issue lies outside my area of expertise, so I can’t reply with authority. What I can offer instead is the consensus among the results of a quick Google search, which happens to coincide with what my opera-singing sister-in-law thinks:
- When the definite article (“the”) comes before a word that begins with a vowel, pronounce it like “thee.” E.g. “<thee> elephant”
- When “the” comes before a word that begins with a consonant, pronounce it like “thu” (with a schwa sound). E.g. “<thu> car”
If you emphasize “the,” it is often pronounced “thee,” even when it comes before a word beginning with a consonant. Try saying, “He is the master of English.” It comes out sounding like “thee,” doesn’t it?
One writer on a linguistics mailing list claims that some people pronounce “the” as “thu,” regardless of the word that follows. However, this pronunciation isn’t standard (when followed by a word beginning with a vowel). It might be attributable to a regional or class dialect, but I don’t know for sure.
You may find additional information at one of these places: