The Grammarphobia Blog

The T sound

Q: I am a Vietnamese who is puzzled by the pronunciation of “t” in American movies.  Sometimes it sounds a little like a “d” and other times I don’t hear any sound at all. Is this just a habit or some odd way of pronunciation—something regional, maybe.

A: What you’re hearing is a normal pronunciation in American English.

The letter “t” isn’t always aspirated crisply, as it is in the words “tea” and “bite.” When it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable, it’s often a mere flick of the tongue.

Linguists call this sound a “flap” (some use the word “tap,” but it’s the same sound). It somewhat resembles a cross between “t” and “d,” but very much softened.

This is the kind of “t” you heard in those movies, as if the actors were saying alligador or phodograph. (Our use of “d” in those spellings is a gross exaggeration, but it’s as close as we can come to this flapping sound.)

“Water,” “butter,” and “atom” are good examples of words with a flapped “t.” In normal conversation, few Americans clearly aspirate the “t” before the unstressed syllable. They merely tap it with the tongue.

As we said, this flapping happens only if the following syllable is unstressed. Otherwise, the “t” is clearly aspirated, as in “atomic” and “photography.”

There’s another kind of “t” pronunciation you’ll encounter now and then in both American and British English.

This is the “t” that a lot of speakers pronounce as a glottal stop—the air flow through the vocal cords actually stops, skips over the “t,” then is released.

This is quite common when the “t” comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable.

Listen the next time someone says “mitten,” “button,” or “mountain,” and you’ll probably hear a glottal stop. The words will sound like mi’n, bu’n, and moun’n.

Most Americans, as well as growing numbers of British speakers, vocalize “t” as a glottal stop when it comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary online, for example, both American and British speakers pronounce “mitten” with a glottal stop. But most British speakers don’t use the glottal stop for “kitten.”

You can hear the difference for yourself. Macmillan has differing pronunciation keys for “kitten,” both British (with aspirated “t”), and American (with a glottal stop).

The adjective “glottal,” by the way, is a reference to the glottis, the opening between the vocal cords in the larynx. In a glottal stop, the glottis closes, then opens.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a homey illustration, from Robert Anderson Hall’s book Introductory Linguistics (1964):

“A complete stoppage of the breath-stream by the vocal cords is called a glottal stop or glottal catch (such as we make between the two oh‘s of ‘Oh-oh!’ when said in surprise or reproof).”

By the way, in looking into the pronunciation of “t,” we learned that many people mistakenly believe the expression “to a T” refers to the tee of golf or a T square or a T-shirt.

The best guess is that “to a T,” which showed up in the late 1600s, is a short form of an earlier expression “to a tittle” (that is, to a dot), which dates from the mid-1500s.

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