Why Confusing Flap T Sounds In American English Become D

Read More

In this Advanced English pronunciation lesson, we cover why confusing flap T sounds in American English become D. Learn how to pronounce words that have a "t" in them as a "d" sound instead. If you're looking to improve your English pronunciation and intonation learn Flap T! This will improve fluency in English.

One thing that’s interesting about American English is that we like it simple. We like English to be easy. But the irony is that double t sounds turning into a d sound presents a lot of confusion for English language learners who’s first language is not English. In this lesson, we’re talking about the phonetic phenomenon called “flap t.”

Get ready, we’re starting now.

>>>

You may have noticed that in American English we do not say “waTer”, “waiTer,” or “butter.” Americans say “waDer”, “waiDer,” and “buDDer.” Head scratcher, right? We don’t pronounce the t, instead we say these words with a d sound.

It’s a lot easier to pronounce these words with a D sound. It takes less energy for our lips, tongue, throat, and mouth to say “waDer” as opposed to “waTer.”

And as I mentioned before, we like things to be as easy and effortless as possible when we’re speaking.

Is there a rule for when to use d instead of t sounds, meaning when to use the “flap t”?

Well, yes, but as is common in English, there are exceptions to the rules. Let me repeat that one more time for the people in the back: there are exceptions to these rules so keep that in mind.

Generally speaking, flap t occurs in the following situations:

(1) T is a Flap T when it is between two vowel sounds of diphthongs. Examples of this are the name Katie, city, beautiful, little (ˈlɪtəl), data, putting.

Exception to this rule:
However, we pronounce the T as a true T sound when there is primary stress on the vowel that T starts with, meaning when the T sound starts as a stressed syllable like in : obtain, attain, attach, attempt, etc.

(2) T is a Flap T after an R sound but before a vowel or diphthong. Examples of this are started (ˈstɑrtɪd / ˈstɑrtəd), party, thirty, smarty, dirty.

Exception to this rule:
It will be a true T sound if the T begins with a stressed syllable, meaning there is primary stress on the vowel sound or diphthong that comes right after the T. Examples of this are in “participate, partake.”  

(3) Flap T can appear across word boundaries and can even happen when the syllable in a following word is stressed. 


There can also be flapped sounds in linking words such as in the case of connected speech. We hear the flapped sounds in:
a great deal of
a lot of
a bit of
about it
put it on
head it in
cut it out

A note to the L1 Portuguese, Spanish, and Arabic speakers, a FLAP T sounds like an R in those three languages. Something to keep in mind!

Another thing to keep in mind is that many Native American English speakers don’t differentiate the pronunciation of:
Latter and ladder
Medal and metal
Liter and leader
Catty and caddy

So as you can see from the above examples, flap T takes on a unique quality when it comes after a vowel or diphthong, or a /r/ and before an unstressed syllable.

In phonetic transcription, we represent the alveolar tap or flap with the symbol [ɾ] in IPA. Y

The way our mouths and tongue produce this sound is like a /d/ except that our tongue touches and very subtly flaps against the alveolar ridge very quickly. You can understand what this feels like if you say “parTy” pronouncing the T and saying “parDy” pronouncing the flap. You can barely feel the flap against the alveolar ridge because it is so brief. If you wanted to find the alveolar ridge you can actually feel it with your tongue, it’s a small bump right behind your upper front teeth. That is what your tongue is touching very lightly to make the flap t sound. So now, with that in mind, say “parTy” and “parDy” again and try to visualize the gentle flap.

The mechanics are pretty cool, wouldn’t you say?

This is something that Native American English speakers wouldn’t think twice about, much like you pronounce things in your native language without even thinking about why you pronounce it that way, much less the mechanics behind it, right?

But understanding not only the sounds but also the mechanics and how to produce these sounds with our mouth and tongue can be extremely helpful when mastering a language, improving articulation, and becoming more intelligible in that language.

Again, the goal should not be to completely eliminate your accent, unless that’s what you want to do. The goal should be to be easily understood, that’s what intelligibility is all about. And intelligibility can be achieved with or without an accent.

>>>

So there we did a nice overview of the flap t sound, which is a flap or gentle tap. And we looked at the rules of this phonetics phenomenon, as in what environments it occurs but also the exceptions to the rule. In English there are always exceptions!

Now I’d like for you to practice these sounds. You’ll know that you’re doing it correctly if your mouth, throat, and tongue get tired. That is because you’re activating different muscles in your mouth, face, and throat and it might be different from what sounds you are used to producing. So if you’re getting tired, that’s a good sign. Over time, with more practice you’ll get less tired and the flap t will become more second nature to you. Eventually, it’ll just happen automatically without even thinking too much about it!

You’re well on your way. Keep up the good work.

>>>

Alright Advanced English learners, thanks for joining me in this lesson.

The full transcript of this lesson can be found on our blog, so be sure to check out advanced english dot co forward slash blog. If you prefer to listen to this lesson, check out our podcast; it's available on our website. And if you love the podcast, be sure to leave us a 5 star review, that really helps us out! See you in the next one where we’ll continue advancing your English together! Until then, keep up the awesome work.