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The words next-door neighbour and postdoc are nearly always said without a 't'. The Oxford Dictionary online gives the transcription as /pəʊs(t)ˈdɒk/, and the audio clearly says the word without a /t/ sound. You can listen here.

Where does this /t/ go to and why is it allowed to disappear? I looked at the top-rated answer answer to this question here: Why is "cupboard" pronounced with a silent "p"?

That answer states that it is because the 't' and the 'd' in postdoc and next-door neighbour are the same apart from that t is voiceless and d isn't. When two consonants are made in the same way in the same part of the mouth like this, then one of them can disappear. That's what it says. But, I double checked with some other English Language scholars and they say that this isn't true at all.

They point out lots of examples where the 't' usually disappears but the next consonant isn't a /d/, isn't made in the same place, and isn't the same type of consonant. For example guest book is normally pronounced guess book. Here are some more:

  • postman
  • mostly
  • left me
  • left-field
  • kept calm
  • disruptment
  • abruptly
  • mustn't

They also pointed out the following where we get a /dt/ or /td/ sequence, but neither the /d/ nor the /t/ can be missed out.

  • bedtime [*bed ime]
  • head teacher [*head eacher]
  • feet don't hurt [*fee don't hurt]
  • meltdown [*meldown]

What's going on? Is there a phonological rule here? And where have all those /t/s gone?

  • 1
    In words like "bedtime" and "meltdown", the consonant is a /t/ (at least for me). However, this /t/ is geminated; that is, it's pronounced for longer than a normal /t/. This also happens when two /t/s fall next to each other, as in "part-time". You would think there should be a geminated /t/ (or maybe /d/) in "next door" and "post doc" as well. But maybe the /s/ before them stops this from happening. – Peter Shor Sep 27 '14 at 12:32
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    @ws2 I know many RP speakers have that reaction (we areb't very aware of what we actually do in normal speech), but John Wells, Preter Lagerfoed, John Roach, Michael Ashby, Beverly Collins, Gimson's Pronunciation of English, Practical English Phonetics and many many other sources about English RP pronunciation record /t/-elision as a commonplace RP phenomenon. Here's a link to one of John Wells' blogs about it John Wells on /t/-elision – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 13:22
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    Actually, WS2 I know I don't, because one of the experiments that was done on us by one of my tutors was to hide words like that in sentences that had other contentious words in. Whilst we said the sentences we, of course, concentrated hard on making sure we said the contentious word "correctly". Obviously it was the data in the 'hidden' words that we were forced to admit was real. My words? Possman and Greem Peace Ha Ha :) – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 17:32
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    The cluster /kstd/ in nextdoor is practically impossible to pronounce at speed. Since /t/ and /d/ are identical except for voicing, and since /d/ is the start of the second part, /t/ gets dropped before /d/ in this cluster. No huhu; normal cluster reduction rule. – John Lawler Oct 5 '14 at 16:19
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    @JohnLawler Yes, we definitely all do loads of funny unpredictable stuff in fæspič :) But there is predictable stuff like the /tr/ affrication thing you were talking about. [That does bug me a bit that word internally /tr/ is never represented as /tʃ/ in tchranscriptions - it would really help EFL students, for example]. – Araucaria Oct 5 '14 at 16:56
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+100

Neat observation. Here is a rule that works for American pronunciation only; I don't know how this works in other dialects:

(Usual in American:) Syllable-final /t/ is replaced by glottal stop before a consonant or a pause.

(Your observation:) This glottal stop is then further reduced to zero when preceded by a voiceless consonant.

Note that in all your counterexamples, the proceeding sound to the glottal stop is either a vowel or a voiced consonant.

  • +1 Nice answer. Will it work if the next consonant is an /h/ or an /r/? – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 14:13
  • I think not, because the glottalizing is "off" in those contexts. Hmm.... should think harder. – hunter Sep 27 '14 at 14:35
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    You probably don't!!! :) I'm asking because for many phonological/pronunciation rules, /h/ and /r/ don't count as consonants, ie the rules don't work with them, that's all. That's why I asked. That also goes for /j/, the 'y' sound sometimes too. So your rule looks fairly good to me - /h/ and /r/ withstanding :) – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 14:38
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    /fæspitʃrulz/ have to do with phonetics, not official classification. Phonetically, /h/ and /r/ are vowels in English, and behave like them with regard to fast speech rules. – John Lawler Sep 27 '14 at 16:26
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    @JohnLawler +1 Definitely! It's a bit funny in contrast that /l/ usually and /j/ often both do count as consonants in fast speech rules ... 'cuz phonetically they're vowels too ... (appreciate the alveolar plosive elision in your transcription!) – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 16:50
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My first explanation:
It's called elision or cluster simplification and is common in many languages other than English. In all of the examples two consecutive stop gestures (where the oral airway is completely blocked) are simplified to one, making pronunciation easier. Elision tends to be regressive (i.e., the gesture that is omitted is the first one).

My second explanation (which contradicts the first, but conveniently explains the counterexamples):
The gestures making up /t/ can be reduced when anywhere outside of foot-initial position (see Harris' paper "Release the captive coda" for a similar but better-thought out statement). The form of the reduction will depend on the phonetic context. The first explanation is confused and totally wrong because the effect doesn't occur across foot boundaries, so there is no regressive assimilation.

In word-final position, AE stops can be unreleased. /t/ and /d/ are the only stops that can be second in a stop cluster, so they will often go unnoticed when part of a word-final stop cluster (though your tongue tip may still go up). When /t/ forms a cluster with fricatives /s/, /S/, or /f/, the /t/ is often unreleased, or omitted altogether. I'd wager there's an aerodynamic explanation for this: intraoral air pressure is bled off in producing the fricative, so there's not as much left for the plosive burst. Other things being equal, /t/ (when fully pronounced) should be weaker in a word-final cluster with a fricative than when by itself. When forming a cluster with a sonorant (nasal or liquid), /t/ will often be realized as glottalization and go unreleased. (say melt and can't to yourself and see). Of course, when foot-internal in a disyllabic word like water, /t/ is tapped and no longer a plosive.

  • How about mostly, or postman, or left-field? The consonant after the 't' in each of those is not a stop (of course /m/ is a nasal stop if that counts). Also any ideas why it's not OK in the second group? i.e. what's the rule here? – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 16:30
  • I know most assimilation's regressive because our articulation is always anticipatory. But I've not heard of regressive elision before. Does elision in English tend to be regressive? It seems to me that it largely isn't, on brief relection. What's your thoughts? – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 16:47
  • @Araucaria if I had taken more time to write my answer I might have reflected the same as you did. elision is not traditionally described with triggers and targets, so directionality may be difficult to establish. on the other hand, elision can be characterized as complete assimilation followed by reduction in length. in that case there is a notion of directionality. – jlovegren Sep 27 '14 at 20:38
  • I suppose that's true:) It seems that in this particular instance though, it's in the other direction. Cos it's the consonant before the /t/ that seems to be the decisive factor in determining the acceptability of the elision (see Hunter's answer). Interesting, no? – Araucaria Sep 27 '14 at 21:13
  • @Araucaria you might enjoy reading this paper by Steriade – jlovegren Sep 28 '14 at 14:54
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This heavily depends on the accent of the individual. In looking at these, I personally pronounce a lot of these, and I'm not a particularly careful speaker (but I'm not a particularly careless one either) and I speak Australian English (North Queensland, but not as lazy as many).

A lot of the losses seem to be due to the lack of aspirated consonants in the English language. Non aspirated consonants can be very hard to pick up to the casual listener (and even those looking for them). Thus in spoken language, these consonants often disappear completely.

Not all of your examples are this situation, but I think it deals with most of the options, and when combined with the aspects that others have mentioned (elision and cluster simplification), I think will explain the majority of these issues.

  • 1
    All I can add to this is there is only a single instance in the example list where I, an Australian in Victoria, would be aware that a T is silent: mustn't. For that the first t is suppressed but for the balance all would contain a clear t sound. I'm not aware of being an especially careful speaker either. – Used_By_Already Oct 8 '14 at 9:31

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