The t sound Allophones
Most sounds of English do not have one exclusive method of production. Small variations of sound called allophones are often so slight that native speakers of a language often barely notice their existence. Which allophone is used depends on adjacent sounds, placement within a word, and if the sound is within a stressed syllable. While native speakers use allophones intuitively, non-native speakers benefit greatly from explicit instruction on the subject by increasing their listening comprehension as well as being perceived as more fluent speakers.
Studying allophones is complicated by the fact that most dictionaries do not transcribe allophones, and instead use a single symbol to represent all allophones of a sound. Learners who wish to fully understand allophone usage should refer to dictionaries that specialize in pronunciation, such as the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.
The American English t sound includes the following four common allophones:
- Remain a regularly aspirated t sound
- Be pronounced like a quick d (also called an alveolar tap)
- Become a glottal stop
- Have no sound at all
Pattern #1: True t sound /t/
The t is a regular, aspirated t sound when it is the first sound of a word or a stressed syllable (or does not fit into patterns 2-4). This rule overrides all other t sound allophone rules below.
The t sound is transcribed as /t/.
Pattern #2: Quick d sound /t̬/
The t sound becomes voiced and is pronounced like a quick d sound when it occurs in the middle of a word after a vowel sound or r sound (including all r-controlled vowels) and before a vowel sound, r sound (including all r-controlled vowels) or a syllabic l sound.
The quick d sound is transcribed as /t̬/.
Pattern #3: Glottal stop /ʔ/
A. The letter t is pronounced as a glottal stop /ʔ/ (the sound in the middle of the word uh-oh) when it follows a vowel, n sound, or r sound (including all r-controlled vowels) and is followed by an n sound, schwa+n sound, m sound, or non-syllablic l sound.
The glottal stop is transcribed as /ʔ/.
Pattern #4: Omitted t sound /t/
A. The letter t is optionally omitted (not said) when it follows an n sound and precedes a vowel sound, r sound (including all r-controlled vowels) or a syllabic l sound.
B. In addition to the above instances of omitting the t sound, it is often omitted when it occurs between two consonant sounds (except the consonants specifically mentioned for the quick d sound and glottal stop). This is lkely to occur when an -s ending is added to a word.
This t sound allophone varies the most widely among native speakers, and even within a single speaker's speech patterns. The t sound is less likely to be omitted when the speaker is emphasizing the word for an reason. Also, among all the t sound allophones, this usage can be considered the most informal and non-standardized.
The optionally omitted t sound is transcribed using italics /t/.