LINGUIST List 10.44

Mon Jan 11 1999

Sum: American /t/

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Faulkner, Summary: American /t/

Message 1: Summary: American /t/

Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 11:45:48 -0000
From: Dan Faulkner <>
Subject: Summary: American /t/

Dear Linguist,

I recently posted a question about various realisations of phoneme /t/ in
American English (AE). The response was huge, and very useful indeed, and
therefore this is a big summary. First of all, I would like to thank
everyone who mailed me with their thoughts - I started out by replying to
everyone, but there were just too many in the end, so I'm sorry if I ignored
you, I am very grateful. Those kind people were (in no order):

Kathleen Brannen
Damon Allen Davison
John Reighard
Stan Whitley
John Thiels
Jakob Dempsey
Donn Bayard
Rina Kreitman
Frank Gladney
Rebecca Larche Morton
Earl Herrick
Henry Rogers
Gerald B Mathias
Alice Faber
Marc Picard
John Hellerman
Laura J Downing
Judith W Fuller
Peter T Daniels
Scott Hersey
Linda Shockey
James Kirchner
Larry Trask

Please accept my apologies if I have not included your name. I think I have
everyone though!

Before I go into detail, there are a few general points that should be made.

One is that the notion of a General American English accent seems to be
unpopular, and possibly inaccurate - apparently a major isogloss dissects
the area that supposedly represents the General American accent region, so
something less ambiguous might be appropriate.

A second point is that there is obviously a lot of
regional/dialectal/accentual variation, and, perhaps as a result of this,
all of my proposed transcriptions were okayed by at least one native

A third point that came out very strongly was that pronunciation of these
types of sequences is strongly influenced by speaking style (formality) and
speaking rate, meaning that there is some extralinguistic influence, and a
degree of intra- as well as inter-speaker variation in the phonetic
realisation of /t/ in various contexts.

The various realisations seem to be fairly easily predicatable, and become
complicated only in alveolar nasal contexts.

Finally, there was some difficulty caused by the symbols with which I chose
to transcribe the words. However, bearing in mind that machine-readable
ASCII phonemic alphabets (such as SAMPA, MRPA) are inadequate for
transcribing fine phonetic detail, most people were able to see the salient
information, and commented very helpfully on it.

Okay, here is a summary of the responses to each case I cited:

(1)		HATING	/ h ei' D i ng /

Everyone said that this was okay.

(2)(a)	WINTER	/ w i' n  R /
 (b)	ENTITY		/ e' n  D ii /
 (c)	QUANTITY	/ k w aa' n  D ii /

Just about everyone said that these are wrong. (2a) was an appropriate
transcription for WINNER, but not WINTER. Contrary to what I had thought
initially, these two are not usually homophonous, and rather than eliding
the /t/ altogether, the /nt/ phonemic sequence is most frequently realised
as a nasalised alveolar flap /D~/. 

A few respondants did say that total elision of the /t/ was acceptable, but
these were in the minority, so I will assume that elision would be a
non-standard phenomenon. The full realisation of phoneme /t/ was also deemed
acceptable for careful or formal speech. 

One really interesting - and purely co-incidental - side effect of the
example words I chose came up. Most respondants stated that some reduction
of the /t/ (usually to /D~/) was appropriate for (2a) and (2c), but not for
(2b). ENTITY was considered too formal or too highbrow a word to undergo any
reduction. I find this remarkable - is it sociophonetics?! I would have
thought that an accent or dialect feature would mean that certain sequences
of sounds were always pronounced in a given way, irrespective of the meaning
(and in this case the extra-linguistic meaning!) of the word. However,

"Wow! I am surprised by this. I seem to have real
 /t/s very easily in this (ENTITY). Quite surprising
 to me. It may be that this is a fairly academic word
 which usually gets a more careful pronunciation."

"These both sound "off", ENTITY moreso than 
 QUANTITY. But this could be because the words 
 are from different vocabulary strata..."

"But I have a special problem with `entity'. This is
 a word I never use in ordinary relaxed conversation. 
 I only use it in more formal contexts, such as when
 I'm lecturing, and then I'm obliged to pronounce it
 as [e' n t  t ii]." 

Another theory was that (2a) and (2c) might have been learned before their
spelled forms were known, but if (2b) was learned with the spelling (i.e. a
visible T), then the full phoneme somehow had to be there. However, I
suppose this is a topic for another time....


	/ i m p oo' R ?  n t /
	/ i m p oo' R D  n t /

 (b)	POTENT		

	/ p ou' ?  n t /
	/ p ou' D  n t /

 (c)	LATENT		

	/ l ei' ?  n t /
	/ l ei' D  n t /

There was concurrence that the transcriptions with the glottal stops were
the SORT of thing that was going on. From the responses received, it seems
most likely that there is in fact an alveolar gesture, but that the /t/ is
unreleased. In addition, the preceding vowel is glottalised. These two
facets occur instead of a full glottal stop /?/. It also seems that there is
no subsequent schwa, and that the /n/ is in fact syllabic.

A few people said that they had heard the right hand pronunciations above,
but the general feeling was that these were non-standard. Therefore the best
transcription would seem to be (where /T/ is an unrelased /t/ and /N/ is a
syllabic /n/):

/ i m p oo' R T N t /
/ p ou' T N t /
/ l ei' T N t /

I also asked for references concerning the pronunciation of American
English, and the following article/books were suugested:

One non-technical (but accurate) source for ESL teaching is "Pronouncing
American English" by Ann Cook, published by Barron's.

Wells "Accents of English."

Picard, M. "English Flapping and the feature [vibrant]" (journal name
unknown - sorry)

Rogers, H "Theoretical and Practical Phonetics",Copp Clark, Toronto, 1991. 

"Teaching American English Pronunciation", it's Cambridge/Oxford, but might
be hard to get in the UK

there's a new book on language ideology in the US (re English and dialects)
called "English With An Accent" (Routledge) by Rosina Lippi-Green.

Once again, thankyou very much for the replies and for the information. I am
sorry if I have not included all the information that was sent to me, but I
hope that I have filtered out the best bits.

Dan Faulkner

Computational Spoken Language Scientist		
Tel +44 1908 273 933 
Fax +44 1908 273 801
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