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Why, in American English, is the word Italy is pronounced /ˈɪdəli/ and not /ˈɪtəli/?
What is the rule that is followed in the pronunciation of Italy to make the letter t pronounced like a d? Why is the same rule not followed for Italian, which is pronounced /əˈtæljən/ or /ɪˈtæljən/?

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4 Answers 4

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First two questions: The pronunciation of some American English consonants can be quite different from British English, in particular for R and T. A t in the middle of a word can be pronunced as a soft d in American English (think of bottle, cattle, etc.). See here, for example, for examples of this.

Third question: Why it does happen for Italy and not for Italian is clearly a matter of stress. If the stress is on the t, it usually keeps its pronunciation and is not changed into a soft d. Thus /ˈɪdəli/ but /əˈtæljən/. Another example is (taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary, in US English pronunciation): tautology (/tɔˈtɑlədʒi/) vs tautological (/ˈˌtɔdlˈɑdʒəkəl/), which clearly demonstrate that.

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It may be worth mentioning the glottal stop here which is characteristic of Northern English (my native tongue). The same rules apply as you outlined, but rather than the D sound there is, in fact, no sound! –  Dancrumb Feb 24 '11 at 15:11
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@Dancrumb: Ah, but the glottal stop is just as much (or as little) a sound as any other occlusive consonant! –  Cerberus Feb 24 '11 at 15:17
    
@Cerberus: I knew someone would pick me up on whether a glottal stop is a sound or not :o) –  Dancrumb Feb 24 '11 at 15:17
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The “soft” t sound of American English is usually described phonetically as a flap or tap and is represented in IPA with the “fishhook r” [ɾ] rather than [d]. –  nohat Feb 24 '11 at 19:02
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@nohat: Aye, good work. –  Orbling Feb 24 '11 at 19:25

Not all Americans do, and not consistently.

Flap-t (/d/ instead of /t/) often happens between vowel sounds or after a vowel and before a liquid.

The t in "-teen" is always pronounced as t. As Henry mentions the reason is that flap rarely happens in stressed positions. As it doesn't happen in Italian.

Here's good explanation of T pronounced D.

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The flap rarely happens at start of a stressed syllable, as in Italian. It is more common in an unstressed syllable, as in Italy. –  Henry Feb 24 '11 at 8:43
    
Absolutely right. –  Manoochehr Feb 24 '11 at 8:47
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Consonant softening (voiceless plosives becoming voiced, etc.) is normal in human language, although it is more likely (or, probably, simply faster to occur) between unstressed vowels. Writing -- artificially crystalising pronunciation -- is not the normal state of affairs. That's why pasta e fagioli comes out pastafazool, or capicola is pronounced something like gabbagool, in many Italian dialects. (And yes, I did understand that you meant it doesn't happen in the word Italian -- I'm just using Italian words to demonstrate that it isn't an English phenomenon.) –  bye Feb 24 '11 at 18:04
    
@Stan Rogers: Italian dialects are not dialects of Italian; they are completely different languages. To make an example, in some places of northern Italy they speak a dialect of the Western Lombard or Eastern Lombard; in other places, they speak Ladino. –  kiamlaluno Feb 24 '11 at 20:14
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@Stan Rogers Capicola is not a word used in any dialect spoken in Italian, as far as I know; Capicolla is rather a word used in Canada. –  kiamlaluno Apr 21 '11 at 13:02

There are no rules for when to pronounce a t as a d and when not to. The only rule is how it sounds when you speak the word. If it sounds funny or awkward, then you pronounce a t as a t, not a d. For example, why do we pronounce a t as a d in the words twenty, thirty, forty, but when it comes to fifty and sixty, the t is not pronounced as a d. Why? because it would just sound awkward.

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Not true at all. I enunciate the "t" in twenty and thirty very clearly, otherwise it would sound like twen.dee and thir.dee Oxford Dictionaries agrees and provides the pronunciation for both BrEng and AmEng oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/twenty –  Mari-Lou A May 17 at 5:10
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The rule for twenty, thirty, forty is that a 't' in an unstressed syllable after a liquid consonant or an 'n' (l, r, n) can be pronounced like a 'd', but one after a fricative (s, f, sh) must be pronounced like a 't'. The reason it sounds awkward to do it otherwise is that some part of your brain knows the rule. –  Peter Shor Sep 18 at 12:43
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@Mari-LouA In careful enunciation, twenty has a /t/, but for various reasons it is often assimilated under fast-speech rules (which as an Italian you will be tickled to learn are also called “allegro rules” and contrast with “lento rules”) into something more like twenny. In dialects with an alveolar flap, thirty and forty have the /t/ manifest as [ɾ], a sound much closer to the r in Italian cara than to [t]. But I assume you know all that: it is very noticeable in North American speakers and some Irish ones under allegro rules, but not always under lento ones. –  tchrist Nov 14 at 4:59
    
@tchrist actually I don't. I tend to avoid pronunciation questions like the plague, I have little difficulty in producing fluid rapid speech but I'm at a loss as to how to describe it. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 14 at 5:07

The determination of the sound is usually in rhythm. Different English dialects have different rhythms for words, which causes letters to get assimilated, softened, and dropped.

If you pronounce the t as t instead of d in a word like butter, the rhythm will be out of sync with American pronunciations. This is the same reason Brits often pronounce literally, litch-rally or lit-rally instead of lid-erally like Americans. They don't soften their t's and the rhythm of the e is faster in British English. As a result the t sound is either emphasized or assimilated into the ch sound.

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