To a T

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!

11 thoughts on “To a T

  1. I live near Glasgow and we are forever dropping the t’s from the end of a word. I read an interview with Lorraine Kelly (tv presenter) and she said her mum used to phone her after tv appearances to tell her off for missing out her t’s 🙂

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    • I’ve noticed that in a few accents in the UK and Ireland. Dublin is quite like that too. I lived in Edinburgh for a year and soon began to notice the little differences between Scottish accents. Like the posh Morningside accent with a very deliberately pronounced delicate little “t” 😊.

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  2. Isn’t it great that ‘glottal stop’ contains a glottal stop? I always like words or phrases that describe themselves. Like the way that ‘subtle’ contains a silent ‘b’.

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  3. Gosh, accents are fascinating. Here in Australia, we’re quite lazy with our ‘T’s. Often we pronounce them more like a ‘D’ (“better” as ‘bedder”, and “little” as “liddle”, etc. ) . And that stop thing, yes. “Mountain” is “mou-un” in good ol’ ‘Strayan 😉 Of course, some Aussies pronounce things more properly than others. I grew up out in the middle of nowhere and sounded rather “country” for quite some time, but i think i’ve become a clearer speaker after years of living amongst civilization. I hope, anyway. Aussie accents are a bit awful.

    Irish accents are lovely! I admittedly didn’t even know who Domhnall Gleeson was before now ( i’m awful at keeping up with pop culture), but what a delight he seems! Lovely voice. I’d happily trade my yucky Aus accent for an Irish ( Oirish?) one. I’ve only spoken to a handful of people with Irish accents, so i’m not sure if it’s a widespread thing, but i’ve noticed that some Irish people pronounce ‘th’ as ‘t’. Like, they’ll pronounce “three things” as “tree tings”, for example. Is that a thing, or have i just watched too much Father Ted?

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    • That’s definitely a thing, done by a slight minority of people, but still a sizeable enough portion of the population. Here’s a great/awful joke based on it: https://mylifeftw.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/dirty-tree-a-turd/
      It’s interesting that in so many countries, dropping the “t” or making it sound like a “d” is seen as informal. I guess it’s because it comes across as lazy, like dropping the “g” at the end of -ing words.
      Accents really are amazing, and I’m always surprised by how many English-language accents there are. But you can still see how the accent in one region is similar to that of its neighbour, and so on, until you end up 500 miles away with a completely different accent! I’m sure you can trace modern Australian accents to the British and Irish accents of their ancestors!

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      • Haha, very nice yet also terrible joke :). Gave me a laugh.
        Yeah, definitely. There also seems to be a general feeling that pronouncing the ‘T’ in a softer way implies a lack of education, or even intelligence. Not quite fair when it really just comes down to accent. But it’s funny how, even here, a more “English” sounding pronunciation tends to result in the speaker being taken more seriously! I guess it implies a well educated, and therefore more intelligent person. Pretty classist when you think about it! But i’m as guilty of that assumption as anybody. This is kind of a thought provoking subject….

        I can definitely hear the Irish influence in the Aus accent. We seem to have made it pretty awful, unfortunately, but maybe there are people in far flung places who find it charming- who knows? ( I must go to these far flung places). It’s a funny thing. I think that New Zealanders tend to sound a bit more English than we Aussies. They tend to pronounce “dance” as “dAHnce”, for instance, whereas for us, words like “dance”, “chance” and “plants” all rhyme with “pants”.

        Anyway, yes, an interesting subject!

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          • Yep, that’s the giveaway! Or if you hear them decide to order some “Mixican” instead, as they pronounce their ‘E’ as ‘I’. There is actually a great ( and hilarious) chart that a kiwi friend of mine showed me once. This isn’t the site she got it from, but that same chart is here: http://apt46.net/2012/08/23/how-to-speak-kiwinglish/ 🙂 I have to say though, i have met a few New Zealanders who didn’t seem to have such a strong accent. Even though it’s a pretty small ( and relatively sparsely populated) country, I think the accent differs ever so slightly from region to region. But most of the people from NZ that i’ve met have had that classic ‘Kiwinglish’ thing happening!

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