5

As for a 't' trapped between /n/ and a vowel, I've heard it pronounced in three different ways:

Maybe the formal, standard way is to fully pronounce the /t/ sound:

romantic: /roʊˈmæntɪk/

Another way is to omit the /t/ altogether:

Atlantic: /ətˈlæn(t)ɪk/

Yet another way is to pronounce it as a flap t (represented here by the letter τ):

countable: /ˈkaʊnτəbəl/

These are how the Longman Dictionary on my computer articulates these words; romantic with a clear /t/, Atlantic without a /t/, and countable with a flap t (shown as /τ/ above), while all these words have a /t/ in their phonemic transcriptions.

So what's going on? Are there any rules as to when you should follow each pattern?

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    Those are /phonemic/ transcriptions not [phonetic] transcriptions. They only tell a native speaker how to pronounce things using that language's phonologic rules for allophones. – tchrist Dec 28 '15 at 20:22
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    @PeterShor: I believe Fard is only talking about the pronunciation of the second t, which is followed by a vowel. – sumelic Dec 28 '15 at 20:31
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    When a phoneme has several allophones, it doesn’t matter which one is used at any given moment. Changing to a different allophone doesn't change the phoneme that's perceived by native speakers. That means it is still the same word no matter which variant you select each time. Allophones aren't something native speakers notice much at all; they just sort of appear automatically depending on the phonologic environment. Sometimes the same speaker will select different allophones in different utterances. If you pick one which somebody else doesn't, you'd be understood—but maybe with an “accent”. – tchrist Dec 28 '15 at 20:54
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    It's not an uncommon diachronic change to lose a stop after a nasal, e.g. in English, /lamb/ -> /lam/. For me in my variety of English (GenAmE) I tend not to drop the 't'. I have a hard time thinking anybody says a flap. I think of it more as a continuum between a full aspirated /t/ and nothing in GenAmE. – Mitch Dec 28 '15 at 22:45
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    Unfortunately you often can't get away with asking how "Americans" pronounce anything, because pronunciation varies greatly from region to region and accent to accent. I've heard all of those alternative pronunciations on all of those words from my fellow Americans. Certainly I hear the 't' in "countable" both enunciated clearly and almost dropped, and everything in between, depending on the speaker (I earned a math degree so I heard that word a lot). – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '15 at 0:18
8

My intuition is that these three pronunciations are in free variation, so there is no morphophonemic rule that can help you decide when to use which. The first, where /n/ and /t/ are both pronounced you can call a "recitation" form, and you would use it, for example, when dictating a message over telephone or speaking to a foreigner who has trouble hearing English.

The other two are gotten by two common rules of reduction. First is assimilation of the nasal and plosive consonant (t not pronounced). Second is loss of the nasal consonant and nasalization of the vowel. Unstressed /t/ preceding a vowel may be flapped, so that's why you get the flap pronunciation.

4

The possible loss of n before t is important for these words. Nasal consonants are lost before voiceless stops at the same place of articulation in many dialects of English. This happens after the nasal has made the preceding vowel nasalized.

If the n before t remains, then so does the t. But once the n is lost, in American English the t is subject to flapping, which only happens intervocalically. That is, the loss of the n brings the t into contact with the preceding vowel, which makes it possible to flap the t.

The flap that results from flapping the t is a sonorant (like the vowels, nasals, and liquids) and is subject to nasalization by an immediately preceding nasal sound, so since the preceding vowel is nasal, this makes the flap nasal, as well.

An intervocalic n is also subject to the flapping process, which makes it into a nasal flap, in effect merging the pronunciation of intervocalic nt and n, so "romantic" and "Romanic" (if there is such a word) may come out sounding the same, both having a nasal flap.

  • It's good to say all that, and you are right, but I fear that our English learner may be confusing phonemic distinctions with phonetic ones that don't make a difference in the perception of which word was uttered. – tchrist Dec 28 '15 at 20:48
  • @tchrist I don't understand your comment. You can't make sense of the phonemic distinction /nt/ vs. /n/, in this case, without attending to the phonetics, which tells you that sometimes they merge. – Greg Lee Dec 28 '15 at 21:02

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