I imagine that you would have no trouble identifying the sound of the letter T, if I asked you. Or any other letter of the alphabet, for that matter. If you’re young enough, you might still remember the chart on the wall of your primary-school classroom, which perhaps said T for Teddy Bear, or Train. But take a moment to say a few words to yourself featuring the letter T. Not only that, include a variety of words with T at the beginning, middle, and end. I’m quite confident that one or two of those sounds didn’t quite sound like the classic T sound you imagined at the beginning.
Let’s look at the following sentence:
Batman started to eat a tiny potato (based on true events).
Lots of T’s there, but they probably don’t all sound the same. More than likely, you pronounce the T in to and tiny, and the first T in potato, in a straightforward way, because they’re the beginning of a word and (in the case of potato), a stressed syllable. With the other T’s though, it depends on your accent. Oh, and you might say that the first T in started is the same as the other T’s I’ve just mentioned. And it basically is, but try the following experiment:
Put your hand in front of your mouth and say tar (your colleagues won’t find it strange at this point). Now, say star.
Did you notice a difference? There should have been a much more noticeable release of air when you said tar. This is because in this word, and others with T at the beginning, the T sound is an aspirated consonant, and in star it’s unaspirated. I’m not going to get into the boring complexities of the mechanics of the slight differences between sounds, but I do want to demonstrate to you the existence of allophones. Allophones are the slight differences in sound of the same phoneme, or in a simpler way, basically, the way the same letter sounds slightly different depending on its position. You’re not going to notice the difference between the T in tar and star much, but linguistically they are distinct.
There are much bigger differences in the way we can pronounce T though. Back to our example sentence. There’s a good chance that, if you’re a native speaker, you don’t really pronounce the T in Batman, unless you have one of a certain group of English accents (i.e. accents from England). Most of the rest of us use a glottal stop, a strange little pause that’s not really a pause because it features a slight consonant sound. Think of the word mountain, in an American accent. You may also pronounce the second T in started, the one in eat, and the second one in potato with a glottal stop.
Or, if you’re American, you might pronounce them like a soft D. It’s similar to a glottal stop, but a little more solid. Think of the word Italy, in an American accent, or butter. Ah, but note the difference in American pronunciation between Italy and Italian. The T is clearly pronounced in Italian, because it’s part of the stressed syllable (the I is stressed in Italy).
Whether or not the T at the end of a word is followed by a vowel, consonant, or anything at all, is also going to change how you pronounce it, because of the conventions of connected speech in English.
There are so many other variations still. When I was training to become an English teacher, one of the first pieces of advice they gave us was to be sure to pronounce the T at the end of words clearly. Which I though was strange, because I assumed I always did. But then I listened to myself and noticed that I, and almost all other Irish people, pronounce unstressed T’s in a very soft way. When the T is in the middle of the word and unstressed, we might use a glottal stop. But sometimes in those cases, and more often when a T’s at the end of a word, we pronounce it in a very soft, almost whistling sort of way. It’s hard to describe, but we put our tongue close to the roof of your mouth, the sides resting between our teeth, and push air out underneath our tongue. Please feel free to also try this in public. Or better still, listen to the lovely Domhnall Gleeson and a fellow Irish interviewer in this clip. You can hear them both do it throughout, but there are a few noticeable examples after the 5-minute mark.
And of course, none of these pronunciations of the letter T are wrong, per se. You may have noticed at least some of these (the soft American T as in Italy is often used as a stereotypical example of American pronunciation in impressions), but I’d imagine they’ve rarely made it difficult to understand someone. I just wanted to show you how a seemingly simple thing like an individual letter is actually a complex, multi-faceted object, changing itself depending on its context. This is true of most letters, but I think it’s most noticeable with the letter T.
And if you’re not a native speaker, how should you pronounce T? At this stage, you’ve probably picked up certain ways of pronouncing it from your teachers, depending on their nationality. And you’re also probably going to be influenced by similar sounds in your native language. As long as you can communicate clearly that Batman started eating a potato, and that it was tiny, you can pronounce T anyway you like, so stick with what you’re doing!