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All the Different Ways We Pronounce the Letter T

We count nine different allophones of the letter T. Odds are good you'll recognize them all (and some of them may annoy you).

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #703
A woman showing how to pronounce the letter T

A few episodes ago, I talked about why the T sound sometimes seems to be missing from words like “kitten” or “button.” The answer was that in those words, many speakers use a sound known as a glottal stop. If you listened to that episode, you might remember that a glottal stop is also the sound we make to separate the syllables in the word “uh-oh.” I compared this sound with “aspirated T,” which you get in words like “toy.” After you touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth, and then let it down, you get a little puff of air before the vowel sound comes in. 

If you’re a longtime listener, you might also remember an episode from 2016 when I talked about another way of pronouncing T, called the alveolar flap. That’s the pronunciation in most varieties of American English in words such as “atom.” The word “alveolar” refers to the alveolar ridge, which is the bony bump in the gums behind your front teeth. The confusing thing about the alveolar flap is that it’s also one of the ways American English speakers can pronounce the D sound, so that “atom” the thing that a physicist might study, and “Adam” the masculine name, sound the same. It’s also what allows the saying “Work smarter, not harder” to rhyme, even though “smarter” is spelled with a T and “harder” is spelled with a D. 

Going even further back into the archives, another episode from 2016 talked about yet another way of pronouncing the T sound. Here’s what I said then: “‘Let’s look at words that start with just TR, like ‘truck,’ ‘trap,’ and ‘transmogrify.’ If you listen carefully, you can hear that for many speakers, the T is actually pronounced more like a CH sound.”

So that makes four ways of pronouncing the T sound: aspirated T, glottal stop, alveolar flap, and the CH sound. Exactly how many ways of pronouncing T are there, anyway? Today, we’re going to take a T inventory and find out. 

At this point, it’s worth introducing two technical terms so that we can talk about T’s with greater ease. The first one is phoneme [FOE-neem]. When we refer to “the T sound” and don’t care which particular pronunciation we’re talking about, then we’re talking about the phoneme /t/. The second term is allophone. It comes from the Greek words for “other” and “sound,” and refers to the specific ways of pronouncing a phoneme. So aspirated /t/, the glottal stop, the alveolar flap, and the CH sound are all allophones of the phoneme /t/.

Depending on how you count them, English has about 40 total phonemes. Some dialects have more than others. Just about every phoneme has more than one allophone. Even so, some have quite a bit more than others, and /t/ has the most of all.

Aspirated /t/ (IPA [tʰ])

Let’s start with some allophones of /t/ that are part of a larger pattern. In the episode where I talked about aspirated /t/, I also talked about aspirated /p/, in words like “purse.” To make the /p/ sound, you put your lips together, and let the air pressure build up behind them for a moment. Then, when you open your mouth, the air escapes with a slight puff before the vowel sound starts. 

In audio recordings, that burst of air creates what’s called a “pop.” I use a physical, metal pop filter in front of my microphone to soften the pops, and my audio engineer (Hey, Nathan!) runs filters that get rid of them even more so you don’t have to hear them. It takes work to keep those aspirated P pops out of the audio. P’s cause the biggest problem because your lips are so close to the microphone, but there’s also a third phoneme that has an aspirated allophone: the /k/ sound. /p/, /t/, and /k/ are a family of sounds, not just in English, but in many, many languages of the world. All three of these phonemes require you to completely block the airflow coming up from your lungs, and then when you remove the blockage by opening your mouth or letting your tongue drop, the sound is made. Where English is different from some other languages is that when we use one of these sounds at the beginning of a stressed syllable, such as “pie,” “tack,” or “cool,” we aspirate them. More precisely, we have between about 40 and 90 milliseconds of exhalation before we start making the following vowel sound. 

Unaspirated /t/ (IPA [t])

The /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds also have unaspirated allophones. One place where we get them is when these phonemes come right after an /s/. So for example, we get aspirated /p/ in “pie,” but unaspirated /p/ in “spy.” We get aspirated /t/ in “tack,” but unaspirated /t/ in “stack.” We get the aspirated /k/ sound in “cool,” but the unaspirated one in “school.” Another place where unaspirated /p/, /t/, and /k/ tend to show up is at the beginning of unstressed syllables. So in the words “happy” and “hockey,” we get unaspirated /p/ and /k/. If we aspirated them, the single words “happy” and “hockey” would sound like pairs of words: “hap he,” and “hock he.” 

Even though these allophones are called unaspirated, that doesn’t mean there is zero delay between one of these sounds and a following vowel. There might be up to about 30 milliseconds, instead of the 50 milliseconds or more that we’d get with the aspirated versions. 

Unreleased /t/ (IPA [t ̚ ])

Now you may have noticed that I didn’t give any examples of the phoneme /t/ at the beginning of an unaspirated syllable. That’s because this is an environment where the phoneme /t/ behaves differently from its buddies /p/ and /k/. So before we go there, let’s finish up with the allophones of /t/ that correspond to allophones of /p/ and /k/. The last one of these is called “unreleased /t/.” 

Have you ever noticed that speakers of some other languages who are learning English tend to insert extra vowels? For example, the phrase “big dog” might come out as “big-a dog.” “First time” might be pronounced “first-a time.” Speech errors like these highlight the difference between aspirated and unaspirated /p/, /t/, and /k/ on the one hand, and unreleased /p/, /t/, and /k/ on the other. For the aspirated and unaspirated allophones, you completely block the airflow, and then remove the blockage, by opening your mouth or dropping your tongue. For the unreleased allophones, the blockage never goes away, until one of two things happens. One is that speakers silently let the rest of their breath come out their nose. The other is that speakers get any other necessary mouth parts ready to make the next consonant sound. Some transitions are harder than others. For example, say “big dog” slowly. As you’re keeping the back of your tongue pressed against your palate, you’re also maneuvering the tip of your tongue into place just behind your top front teeth. Only when it’s securely in place can you let the back of your tongue come down again, and then you can release the /d/ to finish saying “dog.” In contrast, for “first time,” all you need to do is keep the tip of your tongue in place to make one extra-long silence for the combined /t/ at the end of “first” and /t/ at the beginning of “time.” 

However, in some languages, the kind of overlapping articulation I was describing just isn’t done. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the only consonants that are even allowed at the end of a syllable are /n/ and the NG sound “ng.” That means that /p/, /t/, and /k/ occur only at the beginnings of syllables, so they’re always released. As a result, learning to pronounce unreleased versions of these phonemes in English can be a challenge.

So far, we have three allophones of /t/: aspirated, unaspirated, and unreleased. All these allophones have corresponding versions for /p/ and /k/. All these allophones have corresponding versions for /p/ and /k/. Now it’s time to talk about the allophones that are more specific to /t/. 

Alveolar Flap (IPA [ɾ])

Let’s get back to what happens to the phoneme /t/ when it comes between a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable. We’ve actually had a couple of examples of this already: “atom,” and “smarter.” Yes, this is where we get the alveolar flap allophone! This is also our first allophone that /t/ shares with another phoneme: /d/. That’s what turns pairs of words such as “atom” and “Adam,” “hearty” and “hardy,” and “bitter” and “bidder” into homophones. In all of these examples, the alveolar flap comes at the end of a stressed syllable, and the beginning of an unstressed one. [The A in “atom” is the stressed syllable, and then the T immediately follows: A-tom] “hearty,” [HEAR is the stressed syllable, and the T comes right after it: HEAR-ty] and “bitter.” [BIT is the stressed syllable, and after it is the unstressed “er,” so the /t/ in “bit” is between a stressed syllable and an unstressed one.] 

But you can also get an alveolar flap between two unstressed syllables, as in the T in “pocketed.” You can even get an alveolar flap at the beginning of a stressed syllable, as long as the one before it is unstressed. A common way for this to happen is to use the pronoun “it” as the direct object of a phrasal verb; for example, “take it out,” “give it up,” or “shake it off.” In these examples, the verbs “take,” “give,” and “shake” are stressed, and so are the prepositions “out,” “up,” or “off” at the end, but in between them is the unstressed pronoun “it,” which is pronounced with an alveolar flap so that sometimes it barely sounds like it has a T in it. 

Glottal Stop (IPA [ʔ])

If you’re a pop music fan, that last example might have just activated at earworm for you: the Taylor Swift song “Shake It Off.” But if you’re listening to the hook from that song in your head, as I am, you might notice that Taylor is not using an alveolar flap when she says “Shake it off!” Listen closely:

[Taylor Swift “Shake It Off” clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfWlot6h_JM, starting at about 0:50]

Did you hear it? She’s using a glottal stop! This is not one of the typical places where we hear glottal stops in American English. To my ear, it sounds more British. I’m guessing she did it for stylistic reasons, maybe to give some extra prominence to the word “off.” 

In any case, let’s recap the places where glottal stops are more common. First of all, they’re very common when one syllable ends with /t/ and the next one begins with another consonant. For example, right now I’m saying “Batman” without ever putting my tongue tip where it needs to be to make an unreleased /t/: “Ba[ʔ]man.” Listen for my glottal stop at the end of the word “hot” in this next phrase, along with an alveolar flap in the next word: “ho[ʔ] wa[ɾ]er.”

I’m guessing this sounds pretty normal to you. So why do the “missing T’s” I talked about in that earlier episode about “kitten” and “mitten” get so much attention? Well, listen to how I pronounce this word for a baby cat. The first time, I’ll do it with an unaspirated /t/: “ki[t]en.” That probably sounded normal to some listeners, and overly precise to others. Now for my second pronunciation. This time, I’ll do it with a glottal stop: “ki[ʔn̩].” I’m guessing that sounded completely normal to most listeners. Finally, I’ll pronounce it with a glottal stop again, but this time, I think it will sound weird to a lot of you, but also completely normal to a lot of you: “ki[ʔɘn].” 

What happened? If your dialect is like mine, why did the earlier pronunciation with a glottal stop sound fine, while the later one sounded weird? It has to do with the pronunciation of another sound in the word: the /n/! Unlike /p/, /t/, and /k/, which completely stop the airstream for a moment, the /n/ lets it keep going--through your nose! Try it: Say “no,” but say it as if you’re still thinking about your answer before you commit to it: “Nnnnnnnnnno.” You can even make an /n/ sound without any vowel after it at all: “nnnnnnn.” Phoneticians describe consonants that are pronounced this way as syllabic [sih-LAB-ik], because they’re serving as a syllable all by themselves. (Vowels are syllabic, too, but since this is the normal situation for a vowel, we don’t usually mention it.) 

In words like “kitten,” “mountain,” “Burton,” and “Hilton,” instead of pronouncing the final syllable as a schwa plus an ordinary /n/, many speakers just do away with the schwa and basically turn the /n/ into the vowel, by using the syllabic /n/ pronunciation. Why would they do this? It’s unconscious, but it’s actually a labor-saving strategy. Instead of putting their tongue tip up to their alveolar ridge to make the /t/, taking it down to make the following vowel sound, and putting it right back up again to make the /n/, they can just place it there once, pause long enough to make the /t/, and then start letting the air come out their nose. This even works for some words that have a /d/ instead of a /t/, such as “hidden,” “sudden,” and “burden.” 

If you’re using the syllabic /n/ pronunciation for a word like “kitten,” then you now have a situation with a /t/ coming right before another consonant. This is prime territory for /t/ to be realized as a glottal stop, so that’s what many speakers do. That was my second pronunciation for “ki[ʔn̩]” earlier. I’ve been hearing and doing this pronunciation all my life, and have never heard complaints about it. What does sound strange to my ear is keeping the schwa, keeping the non-syllabic allophone of /n/, and still using the glottal stop allophone for /t/. That’s the newer pronunciation, and that’s what I did with “ki[ʔɘn].” When I hear that pronunciation, I think to myself, “Why would you do that?” and that’s what I think people are reacting to. The /t/ has been pronounced as a glottal stop for decades, but hearing it with a vowel instead of a syllabic /n/ makes the glottal stop more noticeable. 

Affricated /t/ (IPA [tʃ])

Alveolar flap and glottal stop bring our allophone count to five. Now let’s talk about that “CH” allophone, in words like “trick” and “true.” The phonetic term for the CH sound in “chew” and the J sound in “joy” is affricate. So the allophone of /t/ that sounds like this is called affricated /t/. The same thing happens to the phoneme /d/: It comes out more like a J sound in words like “drug” and “drew.” 

We also get affricated /t/ when it comes before the sequence [ju]. This is why for many speakers, the word “Tuesday” is pronounced more like “Choose-day.” In both cases, the /ʃ/ (“sh”)  sound gets in there because as you move smoothly between a /t/ sound and an /r/ sound or a /j/ (“yuh”) sound, your tongue passes right across the part of your palate where it needs to be to pronounce the SH sound in words like “she” or “show.” Unless you’re very careful to lower your tongue at that crucial moment, and then bring it back up for the /r/ or /j/ sound, you’ll end up with /tʃ/ (“ch”). It’s not impossible to avoid it; English speakers do it when saying words such as “strike” and “strut. But it’s easy to see why an affricated allophone could develop in this situation. 

Of course, the CH and J sounds are also phonemes in their own right, in addition to being allophones of /t/ and /d/, but stranger things can and do happen. 

Dental /t/ (IPA [t̪])

Next, let’s think about the TH sounds, as in “thick,” “thumb,” and “math,” and in “this,” “that,” and “the other.” To make either of these sounds, the tip of your tongue needs to touch your upper and lower front teeth. For some speakers, it even sticks out between them a little bit. Now, say the sentence, “I put the prize behind the eighth door.” The word “put” ends with /t/, and the word “the” begins with a /ð/ (“th”)  sound. If you say it slowly, you’ll probably find that you’re not putting your tongue tip on the alveolar ridge to make the /t/ sound; instead, you’re putting it a little further forward, where it needs to be for the /ð/ sound in “the”: “puuut-the.” 

I put the prize behind the eighth door.

Similarly, if you say the word “eighth” slowly, you’ll probably find that you’re not putting your tongue tip on the alveolar ridge to make the /t/ sound at the end of the word “eight.” Instead, you’re almost certainly putting it against or between your upper and lower front teeth, where it needs to be to pronounce the suffix “-th.” This allophone of /t/ is called “dental /t/.” You also get dental /d/ in phrases such as “ride the pony” and words such as “width.”

Nasal Alveolar Flap (IPA [ɾ̃])

Affricated and dental /t/ bring our allophone count to eight. But we’re still not done! Let’s think about the alveolar flap again. It’s an allophone of /t/ in words like “setter,” which is a kind of dog. It’s an allophone of /d/ in words like “ladder.” Now let’s take a word similar to “ladder”: “lander,” as in the vehicle that Neil Armstrong stepped out of on the moon nearly 50 years ago. We don’t use an alveolar flap in this word; we use the ordinary allophone of /d/ when we say “lander.” So it looks like having an /n/ before a /d/ stops it from being pronounced as an alveolar flap. Does the same thing happen with /t/? Let’s look at a word similar to “setter”: “center.” I pronounced it carefully just then, using the unaspirated /t/ allophone. But here’s how I often pronounce it, and the way many other American English speakers pronounce it: “senner.” The /t/ disappeared! 

Well, not actually. What happened was that I used an alveolar flap, even with that /n/ in the picture. But that can’t be the whole story; if it were, then you wouldn’t hear the difference between my pronunciations of “setter” and “center.” The twist here is that I’m letting air come out my nose while I do it, and the result is a cross between an /n/ and an alveolar flap. It’s a nasal alveolar flap! 

Now you might be thinking that this shouldn’t count as an allophone of /t/, because I used it as a replacement for two phonemes at once, /n/ and /t/. That’s true, but there are situations where the nasal alveolar flap is an allophone of /t/, at least for some speakers. Carefully say the name “United States” or “United Kingdom.” The /t/ in “United” is in a perfect position to become an alveolar flap, but in addition, it comes soon after an /n/. In that situation, some speakers find it easier to just leave their nasal passage open when they say the /t/ sound, instead of closing it off again so soon. They have to close it off eventually, in order to make the /d/ sound at the end of the word, but this buys them just a little time before having to make that move. The result is a nasal alveolar flap. So try it. Now say “United States,” “United Kingdom,” or “United Arab Emirates” quickly. How does the /t/ in “united” sound now?

Summing Up

I think that’s all of them, bringing us to a grand total of nine allophones of the phoneme /t/: aspirated, unaspirated, and unreleased /t/; regular and nasal alveolar flap; glottal stop; dental and affricated /t/. I’ll finish with a sentence that uses all eight of them: Aardvark sat at the community table, trying to button his shirt sleeves. 

Aardvark sa[ɾ] a[t̪] the communi[ɾ̃]y [tʰ]able, [tʃ]rying [t]o bu[ʔ]n his shir[t ̚ ] sleeves.

Neal Whitman is an independent PhD linguist who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. You can also find him on Twitter as @LiteralMinded.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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