The Letter T

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American English Pronunciation :: The Letter T

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Today I'm doing a big video, a lot of content. I hope it doesn't get too confusing. But this whole big video is going to be on one little letter: T. How do you pronounce this letter? Luckily, there are some rules that I'm going to lay out that will help you figure out how to pronounce this letter.

At the beginning, let's go ahead and throw out TH and TION. Th can be either the voiced or unvoiced TH sound: thanks, unvoiced [θ], or this, voiced [ð]. And the TION can either be sh [ʃ] as in motion, or ch [ʧ] as in mention. Ok, we're done with that. Now let's move on to the T sound.

The T can be silent, but we'll talk about that later. In all other cases, there is one symbol used in IPA, and that is tt. However in practice, in real life conversation, you will hear native speakers use three different sounds. First, tt, the official T sound, as in the word 'tap'. Second, what is called a tap T or flap T sound, it is identical to the D sound, as in the word auto. Now in my videos, and on my website in IPA, I actually do use the D symbol here, because that's how it's pronounced in conversation. Auto. Both of these sounds are described in detail, how to make them, in my Understanding the T and D Sounds video. If you haven't watched that already, I do recommend it. And the third sound is the T as a stop. This is also explained in detail in another video, Stop Consonants, if you're wondering how to make this sound. An example for this is the word wait. Wait, where the tongue moves up into position for the T, but then does not release. This is a stop. Wait. In my videos and on my website, when I want to symbolize this sound in IPA, I put a line after the T to signify a stop.

So when do you make which of these three sounds? There are rules, and of course exceptions to rules, to help you figure that out. First, rule one. When to make the tt real, actual, official T sound. Two parts, part one. You will make this sound when it begins the word or a stressed syllable within a word. For example, telephone or attend. TEND is the stressed syllable in the word. Attend. Therefore, tt, you do make that real T sound.

Second part, if it is part of a consonant cluster. Consonant clusters that happen at the beginning of words or syllables are st-, str-, or tr-. For example stop, strain, tram. Tt, tt, tt, in all of those cases you do make the actual T sound. Consonant clusters can also occur at the end of a word or syllable. There are five that will cause the tt T to be pronounced as a real T. They are CT, connect. FT, soft. LT, lilt. ST, first. And PT, slept. There is one ending consonant cluster I left off that list, that's because it's an exception. And it is NT. When this consonant cluster comes at the end of a word or syllable, the T is pronounced not, tt, as a real T, but actually as a stop. For example, environment, environment. Tt. You don't generally release that in general conversation.

There is one other possible exception I thought of. And that is when someone is speaking really fast and reduces something. For example, the word to. It can be reduced to the word tt, with the schwa sound, as many reduced words and syllables take on the schwa sound. But, I think it can in fact be reduced to the flap T or D sound with the schwa [ə], even though it begins the word. For example, if I'm speaking really fast I might say Quarter to three, quarter to three. The word 'to' is actually getting a voiced sound under it. So it would then be the D sound. That is in very quick speech and it's the only exception to the T at the beginning of the word being the tt real T sound that I can think of. But I wanted to mention it.

Rule 2: when to use the tap or flap T, in other words, D sound. This happens when the T, either written with 1 or 2 Ts, comes between two vowel or diphthong sounds. For example, mutter. Mutter: the flap/tap T, or D, sound. This doesn't just have to be the T sound within a word. It can be a T at the end of a word when the next word is linked and begins with a vowel. For example, What about me? What about me? The T in that sentence comes between two vowel sounds, so it is also pronounced this way.

One exception: the schwa is a vowel sound. But when the T is followed by the schwa and the N sound, the T is not pronounced as a flap even if there was a vowel before. Rather, it is pronounced as a stop. For example, the word tighten. Here the T is between the 'ai' as in 'buy' diphthong [aɪ] and the schwa-N combination. It's between two vowel sounds, but it is not pronounced as a flap. It is the stop. Tighten. If you can see, the tongue does not change position between the T and the N sound. Tighten. Tight - stop - N. That's why you don't bother with flapping the T there. Tighten, tighten.

Before we keep going, let's compare the words 'auto' and 'atone'. In both cases, the T is surrounded by vowel sounds. But do you hear a difference? Auto, atone. In the first word it is pronounced as a D, and in the second word as a T. Why is that? Auto, atone. The reason is: think back to rule 1. Because the T in 'atone' is beginning the stressed syllable. So rule 1 is more powerful than rule 2. Even though in atone it comes between two vowel sounds, the first rule overrides it. Because it is beginning the stressed syllable, it is pronounced tt, as a real T. Auto, atone.

Rule 3: when to pronounce it as a stop. We've already gone over two cases in our exceptions to previous rules. The exception to rule 1 was the ending consonant cluster NT, where it is pronounced as a stop as in environment, sent. The exception to rule 2, when it is followed by the schwa and the N sound, as in tighten. There is it also pronounced as a stop. It also happens any time a word or a syllable ends in a T except for those rule 1 ending consonant clusters, and except for the rule 2, when the next word it is being linked to begins with a vowel. Examples: about, fitness.

There are some words that are just written with a silent T. For example, Christmas, whistle, mortgage. These, unfortunately, just need to be learned. There is one case, I've noticed, where sometimes native speakers will altogether leave out a T sound that does actually exist in IPA. This would be when a T begins an unstressed syllable and the syllable before ended with an N, I've noticed this. For example, interview. Interview. There's no stop, there's no T, there's no D. Also, wanted. I wanted to know. Wanted. Again, no stop, no T, and no D. These could possibly be considered lazy pronunciations, but I guarantee you will hear them.

Ok, that was a lot of information that I just gave you. The best way to figure out if you've gotten it all is to simply go over words and figure out how the T would be pronounced and why. So we're going to go through another video that does just that, look for it. That's it, and thanks so much for using Rachel's English!

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