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Are "traitor" and "trader" distinguishable when spoken with any English accent? My English-speaking friends seem to pronounce them exactly the same way.

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They are indistinguishable in (all?) American varieties. This is the well-known American dental flap, as in 'writer/rider', 'later', 'water'. Note that 'overridden/overwritten', 'kitten/kiddin' (g-dropped 'kidding'), though easy to confuse, are articulated slightly differently. –  Mitch May 22 '12 at 18:58
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In my American dialect they sound subtly different. "traitor" has a slightly harder "t" sound. But they are very similar and I can easily see someone thinking they were the same. –  Lynn May 22 '12 at 19:32
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In UK English, trader and traitor are very distinguishable –  Olly Price May 22 '12 at 21:00
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@tchrist: For me, in "traitor" it's pronounced with distinct frication, something like [θ͇] ~ [ð͇]. In "trader" it's a simple voiced flap, [ɾ]. In careful speech, they're quite distinct, though the distinction is diminished in casual speech. –  Mechanical snail May 23 '12 at 3:36
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@tchrist - It's like: "trate-er" versus "tray-der". The latter does almost sorta sound like "tray-ter" but it still sounds distinctly different due to the emphasis. Sorry I don't know how to describe it better... I'm not up on all the prononciation symbols. –  Lynn May 23 '12 at 5:16
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8 Answers 8

up vote 31 down vote accepted

The allophones of /t/ in English are [tʰ], [t], [ɾ], and [ʔ]. Which of those you get in any particular word and speaker depends on many, many factors.

Both trader and traitor alike are indeed pronounced [ˈtʰɹeɪɾɚ] by most North Americans, particularly in casual or quick speech.

Intervocalic /t/ almost always reduces to a single flap [ɾ] there. That’s why ladder and latter are homophonic, although kitten and kiddin’ are not. Indeed, kitten may become just [ˈkʰɪʔn̩] (sometimes written [ˈkʰɪʔən]) , often enough.

In contrast, intervocalic /t/ does not reduce to a flap in RP; it can sometimes do so in other British dialects, though. So RP would make traitor into [ˈtʰɹeɪtə] instead, with a linking [ɹ] at the end as needed for liaison only.

In Scots English you might find [ˈtɾeɪtʰɚ] (sometimes written [ˈtɾeɪtʰəɹ]), though, with now the initial ‹r› converted into a flap instead of the ‹t›. Just depends on the speaker.

See here for innumerably many other fascinating details and distinctions. In particular, see for example better and daughter. (Just don’t take too seriously the uptalking teenaged boy they got for the General American; that sort of high-tone rising is not commonly heard in older speakers. It has a very “valley girl” sound to it.)

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@OldPro All of that proves utterly nothing, because people do not pronounce words in isolation the way they do in regular speech: isolated words are not regular speech. And the phonologic rules at work in regular speech guarantee that those two words are executed as homophones for most Americans. Your sources are worse that useless: they’re completely wrong. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 0:56
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@Old Pro pronunciations from dictionaries represent citation form, which is but one end of the spectrum of speech carefulness, which ranges from citation form through careful speech to fluent and fast speech. T-flapping happens in American English for most speakers somewhere between citation form and careful speech. For some speakers (like me), trader and traitor are always homophones, even in citation form; for others, they will maintain a distinction through careful speech. But I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find a speaker of American English who never flaps their tees. –  nohat May 23 '12 at 7:10
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Another thank you to @tchrist for linking to sound comparisons! Fascinating. “Standard American” boy's pronunciation is indeed fun to listen to. –  Anton Strogonoff May 23 '12 at 8:48
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@OldPro, it's easy to deceive yourself when listening for differences like this. Can you distinguish them in a blind comparison? –  Ben Lee May 29 '12 at 19:21
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I'm with tchrist here, depite @Old Pro quoting me in support of his position. When I speak, I do distinguish between trader and traitor by whether the vowel is a diphthong or not, but it is quite hard to hear the distinction, especially for people who aren't used to American English. And I believe I pronounce bidder and bitter exactly the same. –  Peter Shor Jun 5 '12 at 17:45
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In American (but not British) English, /t/ and /d/ following a stressed vowel and preceding an unstressed one are normally neutralized to a flap [ɾ] sound.

There are a lot of pairs that are neutralized this way; the standard example is writer ~ rider. However, that doesn't leave the pair indistinguishable, since English native speakers lengthen stressed vowels before voiced consonants, and that vowel length is retained even after neutralization, so Americans pronounce them as ['rəiɾər] and ['ra:iɾər], respectively. (In that case, /ai/ is reduced to [əi] before voiceless consonants anyway, like wide and white, but that's only true of /ai/ -- and in Canada, /aw/)

In the case of traitor and trader, that would be ['tʰreɾər] and ['tʰre:ɾər], respectively, in the U.S. and Canada. English doesn't have phonemic vowel length, but some vowels are held longer than others anyway; listen for them and you'll hear them.

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There are significant variations among American dialects. For me, it'd be ['tʰreɾər] and ['tʰreɪɾər], with the vowel in trader being both longer and a diphthong. –  Peter Shor May 22 '12 at 20:12
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Ah, so as in lout versus loud then? I do raise the first one (somewhat) but not the second, and not in quite the same way as they seem to in Ottawa, where I used to work from time to time. –  tchrist May 22 '12 at 21:35
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(1) tense vowel phonemes /e i u o/ inside slashes, are predictably diphthongized; English has no non-diphthongized tense vowels, so writing the diphthongs isn't necessary. (2) Aspiration is a phonetic feature [inside square brackets] and I wanted to emphasize the difference between phonemic diphthongs /ai au/ and phonetic diphthongs [ey iy uw ow], so I included the aspiration, which usually needs to be emphasized anyway when discussing phonology to non-native speakers (and most of us here are non-native speakers). That's all. –  John Lawler May 22 '12 at 23:44
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One can use length to indicate the offglide, but it's there, one of the many redundant features that distinguish the two classes of front and back vowels in English. –  John Lawler May 23 '12 at 1:47
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@John Lawler my intuition is that flapped /t/ and /d/ are completely neutralized phonologically for me, and I'd be surprised if there were a statistically significant difference in anticipatory vowel lengthening before /d/. I wouldn't be completely surprised, though. –  nohat May 23 '12 at 7:17
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There are some American accents where the middle 't' is pronounced so softly it is difficult to distinguish it from a 'd' sound. However, in received pronunciation British English, the two words sound significantly different.

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"Completely"? You mean just the 't/d' right? Or all the vowels and consonants? –  Mitch May 22 '12 at 19:00
    
Yes, "completely" was a poor choice of word. I will amend. –  Christi May 22 '12 at 19:17
    
What does “soft” mean in IPA terms? Do you mean it somehow becomes an approximant? Or a glottal stop? I don’t know what “hard” or “soft” mean. –  tchrist May 22 '12 at 21:28
    
I'm sorry but I'm handicapped by not really knowing IPA, so I can't describe it any better than that. –  Christi May 22 '12 at 21:53
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Are "traitor" and "trader" distinguishable when spoken with any English accent? My English-speaking friends seem to pronounce them exactly the same way.

They are normally indistinguishable when pronounced in American accents. This happens when the letter t is inside a word. This is not the case in the various British accents.

This is something that was covered by another discussion. You can see the explanations in my answers here: Is there a difference between "bitter" and "better" in pronunciation?

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No.

Trait-or, trade-r.

At least that's how I would pronounce them in Australia.

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Explain the down vote?? –  GONeale Aug 5 '13 at 23:55
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Most American speakers I have heard pronounce them differently unless speaking very quickly. One would seldom mistake "trader" for "traitor", but it could more likely happen the other way around.

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WOW! Three down votes, really? –  TecBrat May 23 '12 at 2:32
    
It seems there has to be a whipping boy :p –  hoang May 23 '12 at 13:03
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I'm not as worried about the downvotes anymore. The reputation system is very strongly weighted in favor of rewards vs. penalties. :-) –  TecBrat May 24 '12 at 8:57
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I didn't downvote, but I'm tempted. I suspect TecBrat is either fooling himself, or in possesion of a dialect of AmE that he believes is more prevalent than it is. My native is AmE Midland (the American TV dialect), and while they both sound very different in my head, you'd be hard-pressed to discern that difference audibly without context. –  T.E.D. Jun 5 '12 at 14:37
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If you read the official pronunciation in a dictionary it is pronounced as a t, but some regional dialects will make it d. If you are in Chicago, you'll hear t's that are in the middle of a word as d's. So in Chicago "traitor" sound like "trader" and "fatter" sounds like "fadder." If you are in Great Britain, you'll here it as a t.

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It’s not regional pronunciation. It happens everywhere in America. As I and others here have explained, phonemic /t/ can be phonetically realized as any of the allophones [tʰ], [t], [ɾ], and [ʔ] — and this one is [ɾ] not [t]. It really is as simple as that. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 0:58
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@tchrist America is a region. And are you really going to say everywhere? –  Random832 May 23 '12 at 12:23
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@Random832 General American is not considered a “regional” dialect by any source that I use, although I actually used America there to mean North America, as it occurs in Canada as well. And yes, flapping is tantamount to universal in North America. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 12:25
    
Right, but "everywhere in America" covers a lot that's not GA. And on a global scale, it is regional. –  Random832 May 23 '12 at 12:28
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If you are speaking with an american english accent, then yes, usually they are pronounced the same.

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