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when the phrase "Can't complain" is pronounced [ˈkænt kəmˈpleɪn] I think that the T is dropped in fast speech because of the alveolar plosives. Right? I read that when T comes before these letters: / s, f, n, l, p, k / it's silent.

I know that in American English the T is held in "I can't do it" but above I'm talking about dropping it completely. I recorded myself: https://clyp.it/zqgvfxh3 Does it sound okay?

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  • Here's the source: books.google.com/… Apr 1 '15 at 23:56
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    I don't think that it's dropped; it's simply not released. It lacks the little puff of air that we usually give after t.
    – Anonym
    Apr 1 '15 at 23:56
  • and here's the audio:dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1924024/cantcomplain.wav Apr 1 '15 at 23:59
  • The rhythm/stress pattern of the phrase in your audio file is correct for the "can't" pronunciation and not the "can" one, which is good, but the complete lack of /t/ and the strongly enunciated /n/ still makes this too confusable in my opinion with "can". As @Anonym notes, if you really want to use a less prominent consonant at the end of this syllable, an unreleased alveolar stop is a fully acceptable variant. You could even use a glottal stop preceded by a nasalized vowel.
    – herisson
    Apr 2 '15 at 0:07
  • Thanks. I misread it. As far as I know Americans don't release the T in can't. They pronounce can't [ kæn ] negative, and can [ kən ] with a schwa sound in affirmative. I don't think that T makes the distinction, rather the vowel. So, what do you think about my audio file, is it pronounced well? Are you a native American speaker? Apr 2 '15 at 0:18
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The relevant rule:

Elision of alveolar plosives /t/ /d/

In rapid, casual speech the alveolar plosives are commonly elided when preceded by the following consonantal sounds:

  • In the case of /t/ preceded by /s, f, ʃ, n, l, p, k, tʃ/ ...

  • In the case of /d/ preceded by /z, ð, n, l, b, g, dʒ/

Working with Words: An Introduction to English Linguistics, edited by Miguel Fuster Márquez.

In other words, when the clusters /st, ft, ʃt, nt, lt, pt, kt, tʃt/ are followed by any other consonant sound, they are often simplified by dropping the /t/. This is a feature of “rapid” and “casual” speech; it is by no means a requirement, and considering that it will be very confusing if somebody mishears your "can't" as a "can", I would not advise aiming for this pronunciation in this case.

However, it’s true that this elision can also apply to this pair of words. When speakers do drop the /t/, “can’t” and “can” can generally still be distinguished due to one main factor: the rhythm/stress pattern of the phrase. A neutral pronunciation of “I can complain” puts the main stress of the sentence on the last syllable of complain. A neutral pronunciation of “I can’t complain” puts the main stress of the sentence on “can’t”, with a secondary stress on the last syllable of "complain". This is only the neutral pronunciation; emphatic pronunciation of the first will put the stress on "can".

As an effect of the previous factor, “can” when unstressed has the vowel schwa /kən/ or a syllabic nasal /kn̩/ while “can’t” has a full vowel: phonemically /kænt/, but in many varieties of American speech the vowel is raised as a result of nasalization, so is realized as [kẽənt]. A stressed “can” will also be realized with a nasalized and raised vowel, as [kẽən], so there is no way to use the vowel to distinguish between a stressed “can” and a “can’t” that has the consonant dropped.

The only other way to tell the difference is by context. Since "I can't complain" is a fairly common phrase, while "I can complain" is much rarer, it's usually possible to guess which one is meant even if there is no audible difference. However, in any context where confusion is possible, there is the possibility of real ambiguity. For this reason, an emphatic "can't" will probably have the "t" pronounced in some manner (not necessarily as IPA [t]; it could also be a glottal stop [ʔ]), and in contexts where clarity is important, a normal "can't" may be pronounced with the /t/ to distinguish it from an emphatic "can" [kẽən].

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  • Thanks sumelic. I appreciate your detailed explanation. It's very helpful. Apr 2 '15 at 0:54
  • +1 Nice answer,. Little niggle, there's little to no chance of mistaking "can" for "can't" here because of /t/. It's highly counterintuitive, but the truth of the matter, is that we rarely if ever pronounce the 'T' in negative contractions even before a vowel. There's a strong likelihood of a glottal stop, a fair likelihood of the "T' being elided completely and a very, very, very slim chance of a canonical /t/. Apr 4 '15 at 16:35
  • @Araucaria: Well, I meant to count glottal stop as a realization of /t/ here, since the phonemic identity is still unambiguous. It isn't [t], but it is /t/, right? That's how I was thinking of it.
    – herisson
    Apr 4 '15 at 20:53

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