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I was wondering if there was any difference between "bitter" and "better" in pronunciation? My assumption is that one is pronounced with a soft "d" as in "better" and the other one with a hard "t" as in "bitter". What do you guys think?

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The real difference in pronunciation here is the vowel sound. The sound given to the 'tt' varies widely by locale and in my experience people will either use the soft "d" sound for both or the hard 't' sound for both but won't split the two. –  Jim Apr 19 '12 at 5:23
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I think you might be making some incorrect assumptions from different accents. Typically, Americans would pronounce both with a soft "d" whereas Brits and Aussies would use more of a hard "t" on both occasions. The difference in pronounciations lies in the same place as the difference in spelling. Update: what @Jim said (he beat me to it!). –  Amos M. Carpenter Apr 19 '12 at 5:25
    
Based on the body of his question, I think the O.P. is only asking about the middle "tt" pronunciation, though that's not the way his question header was worded. I hope I'm right; I'm making an edit. –  J.R. Apr 19 '12 at 9:59
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In that case, there's the difference between ĭ and ĕ, which is almost always discernible, regardless of whether the middle consonants sound like t's or d's. –  J.R. Apr 19 '12 at 13:40
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No, there is a difference between /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ in pronunciation, which native English speakers hear fine. If you grew up speaking a language with a different set of vowels, though, you might have a hard time hearing it. –  Peter Shor Apr 21 '12 at 0:15

8 Answers 8

I think the 'soft d' you're referring to, if you're and American English or Ulster English etc. speaker, is the alveolar tap /ɾ/. I imagine the two sounds you do produce if you speak one of these varieties is pretty similar. There is no "correct" way to pronounce it really, so just keep pronouncing it as you normally would. If you're asking if there's a difference in the pronunciation of and then there isn't one really, because English (generally) doesn't have geminates, unlike a language like Italian for example

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That will depend on which form of English you speak. In American English, it is pronounced with a soft "d". It is normal for Americans to drop the letter t, inside a word. Depending on the word, this can end up being pronounced as a soft "d" or, just not pronounced.

It is not normal to drop the letter t, for British people. As a British person, this t dropping is immediately obvious when I hear Americans speak. Because of this, when they say the words "bitter" and "better", they sound like "biddeRR" and "beddeRR" (not only with the soft d sound but, with a harsh, rolled r sound, as well).

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In what words is the 't' not pronounced? I think I pronounce all my 't's (although depending on the stress, they may turn into soft 'd's if they fall between two vowels). It's true that in some dialects like AAVE, some 't's can be dropped, e.g., little can turn into li'l. But in general American, I think they're almost all pronounced. –  Peter Shor Apr 19 '12 at 12:16
    
Peter. That depends on what you mean by pronouncing t. For Americans, dropping t (that is, pronouncing it as a soft "d" or, not pronouncing it) is normal pronunciation. It is not always pronounced literally, as t. That's the point of this question. –  Tristan Apr 19 '12 at 13:17
    
Bitter is not pronounced with a d sound in american english. If it is, it's because the speaker has poor diction, not because it's common or intentional. It may be a regional dialect somewhere, but it's not common to all American English speakers. –  user20276 Apr 19 '12 at 13:22
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@NathanC.Tresch - It is indeed nearly a homophone for "bidder" where I live. I've lived all over the country (Oklahoma, Pensylvania, Florida, Louisiana), and it was generally pronounced that way in all those places. Sorry you think we are all "wrong". –  T.E.D. Apr 19 '12 at 13:44
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@NathanC.Tresch - Perhaps it would have been better if the answer had specificaly stated that he's talking about the Midland dialect. Many consider it synonomous w/ AmE (much like RP for BE), However making unqualified global statements about AmE is little better than making same about English. –  T.E.D. Apr 19 '12 at 20:58

You have to specify dialect and accent to get a true answer. For me and my dialect (Midwestern American English), the distinction is slight if at all noticeable. But in many "highbrow" dialects, the tt is more voiced. Other examples include betty and bottle. Read more about this regional variation at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_pronunciation#Allophones

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I'll admit, sometimes my tongue gets lazy, and I'll say "bedder" when I mean "better." But the dictionary would exhort me to do a better job of enunciating my t's, like Howard Jones.

bitter |ˈbitər| (adj) 1 having a sharp, pungent taste or smell; not sweet
better |ˈbetər| (adj) 1 comparative of good and well; of a more excellent or effective type or quality

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+1 for the joke, and also for the dictionary citation which is obviously correct and authoritative. –  user20276 Apr 19 '12 at 13:24
    
My tongue is always lazy like that. Only when I'm trying to put on airs do I entirely remove the vocalization from better. –  Robusto Apr 19 '12 at 13:25
    
There's a tendency of radio DJs in the UK to use the 'bedder' pronunciation that's been parodied over the years (by Harry Enfield and Alan Partridge to name two). I think it's a kind of affected attempt to sound more American. On a more serious note, it tends to be one of the first speech shifts to happen when Brits / Irish people start spending time in the US –  tinyd Apr 19 '12 at 14:28
    
Hillbilly 1: I caught my wife in bed with my best friend. Hillbilly 2: You bitter? Hillbilly 1: Yeah, bit HIM too!The Simpsons –  choster Apr 19 '12 at 15:25

I was wondering if there was any difference between "bitter" and "better" in pronunciation? My assumption is that one is pronounced with a soft "d" as in "better" and the other one with a hard "t" as in "bitter". What do you guys think?

The page at this link http://www.americanaccent.com/pronunciation.html, explains it well. Further down the page, at the section called "The American T". It says:

The American T is influenced very strongly by intonation and its position in a word or phrase. It can be a little tricky if you try to base your pronunciation on spelling alone. There are, however, 4 basic rules: [T is T], [T is D], [T is Silent], [T is Held].

It then gives examples. This is the best explanation, so far.

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In my observation, the heavy T pronunciation (which many people mistake it with the pronunciation of D) has its origins from lazy pronunciation phenomenon common in French and English.

The confusion of the lazy T with the pronunciation of D is rather pronounced among students learning to speak "American English" in China, where they learn to pronounce "letter" as "ledder".

Here are examples of lazy/elided T pronunciation:

  • Bo^^le (bottle)
  • But^on (button)
  • Of^en (often)
  • Le^^er (letter)
  • Be^^er (better)
  • Bu^^er (butter)

Elided T pronunciation is a signature of cockney, too. The effect of skipping the T is a pharyngeal/palatal resonance.

Perform this experiment:

  1. Practice saying bo^^le, but^on, of^n, le^^er, etc until the elided T's flow out of your mouth spontaneously and almost naturally.
  2. Then, have a drink, and before you revert back to your original sense of pronunciation, attempt to pronounce bottle, button, often, letter, etc, without skipping the T.
  3. That is how the heavy T effect can be brought about.

I realise that many people who prefer to use a "respectable" form of English pronunciation would take the trouble to pronounce "of^en" as "oft-ten". (And in Boston, I notice people in "respectable" circles pronounce "figure" as "figeuer", "coupon" as "kiupon" - which puzzles me. But would not "pict-teuer" or "picheuer" their picture.) But then, they also oft-ten have to look for pairking spots.

I believe how you pronounce your elided T can be directly correlated to how you pronounce the word "English". Is it

  • Eng-glish,
  • or is it, En^^lish (with a palatal+pharyngeal resonance)?
  • Mont-gumry or M^-gumry (for Montgomery)?

Which would then affect whether there is a difference in how you pronounce the T's in "bitter", "better" and "butter".

In my opinion, the reason is, as you tend to elide your consonant T, you might as well elide its preceding vowel, resulting in having scant differences in pronouncing the preceding vowels.

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Nice analysis. BTW, I had to laugh at how you asked us to analyze whether or not we enunciated the "t" in Montgomery, but let the whole "gumry" thing slide. –  J.R. Apr 20 '12 at 0:29
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The 't' in 'often' is very much unlike the others. In regular speech, it is not pronounced at all (no flap, no 'soft d', no 'lazy t'. There is a tendency for over correction, to pronounce the 't', and when it is pronounced, there is no laziness or softness to it (Notice the lack of 't' entirely there in 'softness'). For the rest of your examples, the 'tt' is an alveolar flap, like in the identical 'writer' or 'rider'. –  Mitch Apr 23 '12 at 14:45
    
In American English, the most common pronunciations of bottle, button and often have three different kinds of elided T's. You shouldn't be pronouncing them the same. And if you're learning English as a second language, you probably shouldn't be worrying about this at all ... there are much more important things to worry about than trying to pronounce words exactly like a native. –  Peter Shor May 8 '12 at 19:01

The difference in pronunciation of the letter t, in American English, depends on its position in a word. For example, when it is inside a word, it is silent.

There is a good example of this in an episode of the Simpsons, called the Blunder years. It shows Homer, Moe, Lenny and Carl as children. The part where they are all sitting around a camp fire and Carl mentions the internet. Watch from 11:54 to 12:06.

http://en.simpsons-live.net/season-13/episode-5_The_Blunder_Years/smotri

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In Standard American English, like some other posters mentioned, [t] between vowels is pronounced as a voiced flap (see The IPA Handbook for further details):

city, water, utter, bought it.

It does resemble [d] but still those are different sounds.

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