Allophones of /t/ in Standard American English

I find these symbols the easiest to use without access to an IPA font. They also have the advantage that you can place them right into an English word to illustrate where they are used. (t'omato, stat'istics, wi.tness, bottom, mat'ress).

Symbol and Description

t' — aspirated t
t with an audible escape of air
The more aspirated the t, the more the sound approaches "ch"

.t — stopped t; (unreleased t)
onset of t only without the final escape of air
Often accompanied by a glottal stop - a sort of tightening in the throat

t — tapped t
a voiced consonant; similar to the flapped r of Spanish or Italian

t— neutral t
not aspirated, stopped, nor tapped

If you want to get down to even narrower phonetic transcriptions, you can, but I don't think this would be useful to anyone but a specialist.

To be continued.
Allophones of /t/, continued.

Other symbols that will be used in a chart to follow:
V' stressed vowel a vowel relatively more stressed
syllable of the word
'V unstressed vowel a vowel relatively less stressed
syllable of the word
V any vowel any vowel, whether stressed or not
L syllabic L as in the final syllable of "little", "curdle"
(always unstressed)
N syllabic N as in the final syllable of "satin", "carton"
(always unstressed)
/ "or"
b# beginning of a word
e# end of a word
C consonant any (other) consonant
not mentioned in a list
(down the left side or
across the top of the chart)

To be continued.
The chart shows the "unmarked" usage of allophones of /t/.
The "marked" form is the aspirated [t']. It can be used anywhere for emphasis.

Symbols listed down the leftmost column are sounds that precede t.
Symbols listed across the top row are the sounds that follow t.
Symbols within the chart show which allophone of t is most usually heard in that context.
For example, in the case of a t preceded by r and followed by an unstressed vowel, the tapped t is the most usual allophone used. In some cases more than one allophone is possible.

...... s/f ..... r .... V' ....'V .. L ... l/n .. N .. C ... e#
s/f ... t ..... t ..... t ..... t .... - .... - .... - .... t .... t
b# ... - ...... t' .... t' .... t' .... - .... - .... - .... t' ... -
V .... t ...... t' .... t' .... t .... t .... .t ... .t ... .t ... .t
r ..... t ...... t' .... t' .... t .... t .... .t ... .t ... .t ... .t
l/n ... t ...... t' ..... t' .... t .... t .... .t ... .t ... .t ... .t
C .... t ...... t' ..... t' .... t .... t .... .t .... - ... .t .... t

To be continued

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Explanation of the chart with examples.

Before or after s (or f), t is neutral (first row; first column).
Other than the case above, t before r or a stressed vowel is aspirated. (cols. 2, 3)
Word-initial t is also aspirated. (row 2)

A t after a vowel or after an r and before an unstressed vowel or syllabic L is tapped (and voiced).

Other than the cases above, s t after a vowel or after an r is stopped. ([.t]).

And so on.

lasts Watson artful ants facts street ostrich story extent after extra nest raft
t'ruck at'rophy at'rocious fort'ress ent'rance act'ress t'orrent t'eabag at'omic att'end
art'erial curt'ail ult'erior int'ernal fict'itious t'omorrow t'oday t'wist
item atom butter barter mortar little battle hurtle startle
Dalton Clinton mountain winter captain raptor invective lintel fractal
Hi.tler wi.tness hear.tless par.tner guil.tless an.tler tac.tless
co.tton sa.tin car.ton cer.tain Dal.ton Clin.ton moun.tain a.tmosphere
sa.t coa.t no.te ar.t por.t sal.t wan.t
rapt sect

(Note that words like Dalton, Clinton, mountain have alternate pronunciations.
1. With a neutral t followed by vowel (schwa) and consonant n
2. With a stopped t followed by syllabic N)

Words with multiple t's are good practice. attit'ude t'urtle

This set of posts does not deal with "t" pronounced "ch" or "sh" or silent in words like picture, nation, ballet.


Very useful info! claps hands

Some questions:

1) Is it considered an important mistake if a non-native speaker uses a type of /t/ sound incorrectly (i.e. using an aspirated instead of a stopped t)? Will they be clearly understood nontheless?

2) Is the neutral t identical to the t used in Spanish in terms of sound?

3) I've gathered this from some notes of mine about flapped or tapped t:

Flap t occurs with any medial t that:

1) comes at the beginning of an unstressed syllable and

2) happnes between voiced sounds.
1. It is not a significant mistake to interchange t sounds. You will be understood no matter how you pronounce your t's -- as long as you don't pronounce them as m's or j's, of course!
In fact, if you don't use the tapped t at all, for example, you will simply be pronouncing more in the British style. (We associate the tapped t with American pronunciation.)

2. I am 98.44% certain that the neutral t I describe above is essentially the unaspirated Romance Language t (Spanish, French, Italian). Whatever differences there are, if any, must be minimal.

3. Your rule for tapped t is just slightly off. Tapped t (t like d or like Spanish r) is used only in four cases, all of them between a stressed and unstressed syllable.

a) between vowel and vowel (intervocalic t),
b) between r and vowel,
c) between vowel and syllabic l
d) between r and syllabic l.

a) bitter, meter, photograph, erratic, later
b) barter, fortify, artifice
c) little, natal, cattle, subtle (b is silent)
d) hurtle, myrtle, fertile

Just saying "between voiced sounds" covers too much territory. It's true that all cases of tapped t occur between voiced sounds, but, on the other hand, some t's between some voiced sounds are not tapped t's.

li.tmus, par.tner, Sha.tner, Hi.tler

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Above all, it was very kind of you to take the time to answer.

I'm falling into a dilemma due to pronunciation of /t/.

When I tune in to MLB, many anchors say " ~ center field ~".

As far as I listen, they prounce 'center' as /sener/. - I think that is aspired /t/.

I just want to focus on "t" sound.

So when it comes to 'winter', 'counter' , 'sentence' and so on, could I prounce like that???

I'm so curious...

Help me, please.

Best regards.
I'm not familiar with MLB.

In American English it is very common to omit the "t" when it follows a stressed syllable ending in "n" and precedes an unstressed syllable beginning with a vowel. "winter" and "winner" are indistinguishable. The absence of the t sound here is not an aspirated t, as you seem to suggest in your post.

I don't recommend imitating this pronunciation unless you live in a community where it is very common. Use a neutral or slightly aspirated t instead.

There is an exception -- the verb "want". "want to" and "want a" are both pronounced "wanna" if you are speaking fairly fast in an informal setting. The past tense is often said "wannid". "wanted to" is often "wannida". I don't see any great objection to that in relaxed conversation.

"sentence", by the way, can have stopped t and syllabic N: sen.t-Nce.

I've totally understood what you meant.

Thanks a lot.

Best wish.
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