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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/?

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
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 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! Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 15:17
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    @Cerberus: I knew someone would pick me up on whether a glottal stop is a sound or not :o)
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 19:02
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    @nohat: Aye, good work.
    – Orbling
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 19:25
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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
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 8:43
  • Absolutely right.
    – Manoochehr
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 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.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 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.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 13:02
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There's no /d/. It's /ɪtəli/ pronounced [ɪɾəli], with alveolar flap in the pronunciation corresponding to phonemic t. It really is helpful, folks, to distinguish between phonemes and phones for a question like this. If the schwa is lost in casual pronunciation, since you can't say a flap right next to an [l] (the tongue tip has to come back down for a flap), the flap becomes [d]: [ɪdli] (which does not happen in my pronunciation, but I've heard it).

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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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