Editor at Large
Do Americans pronounce T like D?
Monday, April 27, 2009
Do Americans pronounce T like D? Pronunciation editor Josh Guenter writes:
It’s often stated that Americans pronounce T like D. This is not quite accurate. In American English, T and D are always pronounced distinctly in words like dip and tip, or attack and adapt, or bleat and bleed. However, there are many words, such as metal and medal, or bleating and bleeding, or bitter and bidder, where T and D are indeed pronounced the same for many speakers of American English. In these words, it is not the case that T is being pronounced as a D. Rather, it is the case that both T and D are being pronounced as a third sound, commonly known as a “tap” or a “flap.” The “tap” that we may hear in a word like bleating is not the same sound as the final consonant in bleat, but it is also not the same as the final consonant in bleed.
We do not find the “tap” sound in all positions in a word in American English. We only find it between vowels. Specifically, we only find it between vowels when the following vowel is not stressed. Stressed syllables are indicated in our dictionaries by one of two marks, either the high stress mark, /ˈ/, for a syllable which has the greatest degree of stress in the word, or the low stress mark, /ˌ/, for a syllable which doesn’t have the greatest degree of stress in the word, but which still receives stress. Any syllable not preceded by one of these two marks is unstressed. Thus, we may hear the “tap” sound in words like metal, bleeding, or bitter, but we would not hear the “tap” in words like attack, since the vowel following the T is in a stressed syllable. It should be noted that R acts like a vowel in American English with regards to tapping, thus words like barter, herding, or aorta will have taps. Also, a “tap” can be found at the ends of words when the following word begins with an unstressed vowel. For example, in the sentence "I will read a book," the D at the end of read will sound like a tap.
Not all speakers of American English pronounce T and D as taps in the situations mentioned. Some will keep T and D distinct in all situations. Tapping of T and D is also not common in British English though it is common in Australian English. Even some speakers who do use taps might not always do it consistently, and might pronounce a word with a tap sometimes, and with a regular T or D other times. A learner of English who wants to keep T and D distinct in all situations will be understood. However, if you want to sound like a native speaker of American English, it is useful to learn when to pronounce T or D as a tap.