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It's very difficult for me to separate them.

I was just listening to some video and it said "Fat cells can’t reproduce themselves." What I thought I've heard is "... CAN reproduce ..."

Frankly, that's pretty annoying.

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In British English? –  b.roth Feb 18 '11 at 12:42
    
I agree; I often find it very difficult to distinguish "can" from "can't" in spoken English. This happens to me in British, Australian and American English. Any tips are welcome. –  CesarGon Feb 18 '11 at 13:19
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I see no reason for trouble in British English or Australian English: can is pronounced /kæn/, /kɛn/ (as in American English), while can't is pronounced /kaːnt/ (≈"cahnt", listen), an entirely different vowel. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 18 '11 at 13:35
    
@ShreevatsaR: Interesting, thank you. According to @Kosmonaut below, this is not the case in American English, right? –  CesarGon Feb 18 '11 at 13:40
    
This is the case in Boston and New England in General, many older people who are born and bred in the area say /kaːnt/ (cahnt), instead of /kænt/. –  Juan Mendes Feb 18 '11 at 17:59
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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The strongest cue for distinguishing these two words is the length of the vowel (in American English at least).

  • The word can has a lengthened vowel
  • can't has a much shorter vowel

On the telephone, where the auditory signal is compressed, exaggerating the length of the vowels ("did you say ca-an or can't?") is how most people distinguish these two words.


(The cause of this vowel length difference is the presence of the voiceless stop /t/ at the end. Even if the /t/ is realized as the glottal stop (which it often is), this has the same effect.)

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it's funny because in the case i mentioned above, the speaker actually pronounced "Fat cells CA-AN’T reproduce themselves." for emphasis. and that might be why i was confused. –  trVoldemort Feb 18 '11 at 13:35
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As well as the vowel length, the presence of glottalisation from the /t/ is not just incidental but also a big clue, I would have thought. –  Neil Coffey Feb 18 '11 at 14:16
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In a strict phonetic transcription, can't in my dialect is pretty much [kʰæ̃ʔ], which I can imagine would be relatively difficult to distinguish from [kʰæ̃:n], especially if you're looking for a [t]! –  JSBձոգչ Feb 18 '11 at 19:08
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Wow, as a native (non-linguist) speaker of American English (western), I can't avoid hearing what I think is a /t/ sound at the end of "can't". I guess I sometimes hear a subtle piece of a glottal stop before it, but always a piece of /t/. If I try to remove the t sound, it comes out sounding "Cockney" to me, with the word being truncated and a heavy glottal stop. –  mgkrebbs Feb 19 '11 at 9:01
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@Peter Shor: written, patent and beaten (along with mitten, kitten, etc.) all take glottal stop in Standard American English. The pattern is that you get a glottal stop when a /t/ is followed by an unstressed vowel and an /n/, and otherwise you get a flap. I know of a dialect that puts a flap in all contexts (presumably yours), but that pattern is not common in general. (Note also that ridden gets a flap in all dialects, as the n-rule only applies to /t/). –  Kosmonaut Jun 4 '11 at 3:47
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In my dialect of American English (mid-western), the unstressed "can" is generally pronounced [ken] or [kən], whereas "can't" is always pronounced with a short "a", as [kænt]. In a stressed position, it's [kæn] vs. [kænt], but the final 't' sound is always aspirated instead of glottal-stopped, making the distinction fairly easy to recognize.

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I'm afraid the opposite to what Kosmonaut says applies in the case of British English.

Can rhymes with can (the object), ban, tan, man.

Can't rhymes with car, bar, mar.

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It's not as simple as that; British English is itself divided with respect to this pronunciation: virtuallinguist.typepad.com/the_virtual_linguist/2010/05/… –  Will Vousden Feb 18 '11 at 15:12
    
@Will, hmm, I agree for grass/'grarse', but I can't (whoops!) think offhand of any British accent where can is pronounced differently than I indicated above. However I think you're right for can't. Which comes back to the OP's question, I guess. –  Benjol Feb 19 '11 at 9:34
    
Will is right. There is not one way to pronounce these words, in British forms of English. It depends on accents. There are British, regional accents where can and can't are very similar. They don't sound similar in certain, other, regional accents. This is also the case for people without accents and speakers of received pronunciation. –  Tristan Jul 8 '12 at 22:48
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