At the Well Said clinic, many of our accent modification clients will ask why the T is so difficult to pronounce. They report that they can pronounce a T well, but are confused when native speakers use other sounds where they feel a T should go. Most native English speakers would be of no help to these clients, as they are unlikely to notice that their pronunciations of T change in different words.
In order to understand what makes the T difficult, these clients will need to learn about the different allophones that make up what we think of as the English “T sound.” Allophones can be defined as the variations in a sound that can occur when it is produced in different places in a word, and they occur in many different languages. For example, a native speaker of English may be confused about why some words in Spanish would be pronounced with a “Z sound” where they would expect an “S sound” (e.g., in the word “mismo”). However, a native Spanish speaker would not necessarily notice that they pronounce the S sounds in “mismo” and “casa” differently.
The reason why many English learners find T hard to master is because what we think of as the “T sound” is actually a category of sounds comprising a relatively large number of allophones. In order to choose the right versions of the T for the words they want to say, the clients require an understanding of the rules surrounding which version to use in a given word.
The different types of Ts you may hear*
Aspirated T: This sound is written in the phonetic alphabet as [tʰ]. It is a version of T that is produced with extra air escaping after the T in a little hiss-like sound before you begin pronouncing the following vowel.
Unaspirated T: Written in the phonetic alphabet as [t]. Somewhere between aspirated T, or [tʰ], and a D sound. Much less air escapes before pronouncing the vowel after this T sound, or if it is at the end of the word you will barely hear the air escape.
Unreleased T: Written in the phonetic alphabet at [t̚]. To make this sound, you can place your tongue on the roof of your mouth as you would for a T, but don’t release the air at all.
Tapped T (AKA the “Tap”): Written in the phonetic alphabet as [ɾ]. This version of T sounds a little bit like a D, or like one version of the Spanish R (as in “pero,” not “perro”). To pronounce it, hold the tip of your tongue close to the roof of your mouth and tap it up against the top ever so quickly.
Glottal T: Written in the phonetic alphabet as [tˀ]. This version is produced by cutting your voice off at the level of your vocal folds (just like you would where the dash is in “uh-oh”), with your tongue placed as if for an unreleased T, or [t].
Omitted T: In IPA, no symbol would be written. In this case, you would not pronounce the T at all.
How to choose the T you need*
There are several factors that you need to think about when choosing which T sound to use. In native speakers of English, these decisions happen automatically and subconsciously, but many people learning English as a second/third/additional language (or even people moving from one province to another!) will need to be more deliberate about their choices, at least in the early stages of learning.
Stress: In a multisyllabic word, there is nearly always one syllable that gets more emphasis than the others. This is a stressed syllable. The version of T that you use will depend on where the T is relative to the stressed syllable:
If a T is in between a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable, right between two vowels (such as in “ci-ty”), it is pronounced as a tapped T, or [ɾ].
If the T is at the beginning of a stressed syllable (such as in the words “to-day” or “a-ttack”), it will be pronounced as an aspirated T, or [tʰ]. If a word only has one syllable, it is considered to be stressed.
The letter S: This sound can affect the T in more than one way:
Even if the T is at the start of a stressed syllable, it will not be aspirated if it comes immediately after an S. In the words “steam-ing” and “teem-ing” the pronunciation of T will be different, as native speakers will put the energy needed to aspirate the T sound into the S sound instead. As a result, the T will be produced as an unaspirated T, or [t], in “steaming.”
If the T is followed by an S or Z (as in “rats” or “pizza”), that T will be pronounced as an unreleased version, [t̚]. The S or Z that follows will replace the release of air at the end of the T.
The letter L: In words that end in “-tle” or “-ttle,” such as beetle or throttle, there are two options when you pronounce the T sound. The one a native speaker will use may depend on where they were raised.
The first is an unreleased T, or [t̚]. Here, the T would release into the L, instead of letting the little burst of air out between the sounds. Your tongue tip would not leave the roof of your mouth.
The second is the tapped T, or [ɾ]. Here, your whole tongue would tap the roof of your mouth, and come back down before the tip reached back up to pronounce the L sound.
The letter N: The N sound can affect the T in more than one way, depending on where you are living:
Across many Canadian English dialects, words ending in “-tton” will get the glottal T, or [tˀ].
In some regions of North America (including Ontario!), another rule also applies. If the T sound follows an N, and the N is in a stressed syllable, omit the T entirely. For example, in the word “cen-ter,” whether or not you pronounce the T will depend heavily on where you are from.
At the end: There are two options to pronounce a T located at the end of a word:
If this T was at the end of your phrase or sentence, you may put your tongue up for the T and not let the air go after speaking. This would be the unreleased T, or [t̚].
If more words or sounds come after the word, the T will be pronounced without aspiration, as [t].
Now that you have learned a great deal of information about the many ways to pronounce T, it is time to try and apply that knowledge. Here is a list of words that include the T sound. Which version of T would you use for each word?
a & 2b: Toronto
a & 7b: Stuart
*Note: This article was written by a Speech-Language Pathologist who grew up in Atlantic Canada, who speaks with a fairly “neutral” Canadian accent. Other regional dialects of English may use different allophones of T, or have different rules surrounding when to use them. Consult a Speech-Language Pathologist in your area of residence if you are interested in modifying your accent to match the local population, or ask your clinician if they are familiar with the regional dialect that you would like to match.
Do your answers to the practice items match those listed here? (1 = aspirated, 2a = aspirated, 2b = omitted, 3 = tapped, 4 = tapped or unreleased, 5 = unaspirated, 6 = glottal, 7a = unaspirated, 7b = unaspirated OR unreleased, 8 = aspirated, 9 = tapped, 10 = aspirated)
If you found this exercise difficult and would like to learn more about the T sound or accent modification services in general, contact the Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy clinic to book your initial consultation.