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One very common phenomenon in north-American English is T flapping when the T comes between two vowels (or semi-vowels, like the R sound) on an unstressed syllable.

This "rule" is almost mathematical, I didn't hear any T pronounced as /t/ in this environment until I heard north-Americans say the word relative(s).

I went to youglish which gives you youtube videos according to some word and dialect, and so far all of the speakers from America say /ɹɛlətɪv/ with an un-aspirated /t/ sound.

My questions are:

  • why isn't the T flapped?
  • does /ɹɛləɾɪv/ sound weird?
  • are there other words which apply to the T flapping rule but the T isn't flapped?

Thanks!


After @Araucaria gave his answer, I decided to try more speakers, and here I found some:

https://youtu.be/AchISJUKfH4?t=706
https://youtu.be/bS45Ml30h9g?t=279
https://youtu.be/tbuLHSzBzZk?t=2175

In conclusion, most of the Americans don't flap their T in "relative", they pronounce it either aspirated or non aspirated. A very small minority do however, flap their T there.

I guess all of the answers given here are correct. Americans who don't flap their T in "relative" pronounce this syllable with a secondary stress, while American who do flap their T there obviously don't. I guess the amount of "stress" put there depends on the regional accent of the speaker.

I also guess that according to the "General American" standard, the T shouldn't be flapped there, as dictionaries do mark the tiv syllable as having a secondary stress.

  • 1
    I agree that U.S. speakers don't flap relative used as a noun, but I think it could often be flapped in "relative to your last question etc." – aparente001 Dec 21 '17 at 13:00
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    The crazy thing is, there is a flap in "It's all relative". Perhaps it is. – Spencer Dec 21 '17 at 13:09
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    @Spencer - So far as I can tell, I pronounce the word in "He's a relative of mine" and "It's all relative" exactly the same. – Hot Licks Dec 21 '17 at 14:08
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    A short but unimportant note - I'm a hairy bloke with a (temporary) beard! (My pen-name is a homage to the late Araucaria, aka John Galbraith Graham, who was a legendary, witty, humanist, cryptic crossword writer for the Guardian newspaper :) Nice detective work, btw! – Araucaria Jan 17 '18 at 16:27
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    I'm looking, but I haven't been able to find any dictionary at all that gives a secondary stress on relative. I've checked about ten so far. Could you give an example of one? (You might be interested in the new dictionary comment in my answer regarding the transcription of flapped /t/!) – Araucaria Jan 17 '18 at 16:44
4

Short answer:

There's no doubt at all that the /t/ in relative may be flapped in standard American English. Indeed many dictionaries include a flapped /t/ in their transcriptions and give audio examples with flapped /t/'s too.

Here for example is the transcription from Cambridge Dictionaries:

relative

noun [ C ] UK ​ /ˈrel.ə.tɪv/ US ​ /ˈrel.ə.t̬ɪv/

That little upside-down hat under the 't' represents a flapped /t/. The audio there also uses a flapped /t/.

And here is the transcription from Oxford Dictionaries clearly indicating a flap for a /t/, where their convention is to represent flapped-/t/ with 'd':

relative /ˈrɛlədɪv/

In spite of the above, the /t/ in relative is only optionally flapped in this environment. Many speakers may not do so, and others my only use flapped /t/ in certain circumstances, for instance in connected speech as opposed to when giving a citation form. For why, see the full answer below.


Full answer:

Here is an excerpt from a paper by Alice Turk, Professor of Linguistic Phonetics at Edinburgh University, concerning the phonology of flaps in American English:

Here we are concerned with examples like (2) above, where a /t/ occurs between two unstressed vowels. Turk's example, provocative, has the same morphology as the Original Poster's word relative. In both instances the /t/ is intervocalic (occurs between two vowels), and occurs between unstressed vowels.

As described by Alice Turk, the flapping of /t/ in this environment is optional. This is well-attested in the comments here, where several respondents point out either that this /t/ is flapped, or that it can be.

In short then, [ɹɛləɾɪv] doesn't sound odd at all. Whether an individual happens to flap a /t/ in this sort of environment will depend on many factors: the personal habits and predilections of the speaker, whether they are saying the word alone or in a sentence, the speed at which they are talking, and so on and so forth.


Note:

No printed dictionaries give a transcription of relative with a secondary stress.

It has been suggested elsewhere here that the last syllable of relative has secondary stress. It doesn't, at least not in the normal meaning of the term.

In words with secondary stress, it's possible to have a rhythmic stress on both stressed syllables:

- 'abso-'lutely fan-'tastic.

In the utterance above we can have a full stress on each of the three bolded syllables, including both the first and third syllable of absolutely. We cannot do this kind of thing with the last syllable of relative

- 'famous 'rela-'tive (stress on -tive, badly formed).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Jan 19 '18 at 20:17
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The word relative /ˈɹɛləˌtɪv/ often has weak secondary stress on the /ɪ/, which blocks flapping.

This is the same reason that the pronunciation /ˈɹɛlətəv/ sounds strange. People with the weak vowel merger generally replace /ɪ/ in unstressed vowels with /ə/. And if you live in the U.S., even if you don't have this merger, you are probably familiar enough with this merger that it doesn't sound strange. But /ˈɹɛlətəv/ and /ˈɹɛləɾɪv/ sound weird to me because the /ɪ/ has weak secondary stress—weak because it's a weaker stress than most things that are classified as secondary stress in dictionaries.

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    thank you. can you actually hear the secondary stress there? if you say the final syllable completely unstressed, does it sound different from the regular "relative" pronunciation? I know that the concept of secondary stress exists, I just can't hear it in "relative", it sounds pretty much unstressed to me.. – David Haim Dec 21 '17 at 14:35
  • @DavidHaim I’m pretty sure I hear some slight aspiration on the front of the [tʰɪv] syllable. – tchrist Jan 17 '18 at 15:23
  • Several three-syllable -tive words follow this pattern, and also can have an unflapped T; positive and formative come to mind, but I'm sure there are others. – 1006a Jan 17 '18 at 15:45
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    According to the sources I found while researching my answer, it might be better to call this "tertiary stress" or "minor stress" rather than referring to it as a kind of "secondary stress". But it seems possible that some people would call this kind of stress secondary stress, and I just haven't found the relevant sources yet. – sumelic Jan 17 '18 at 23:34
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    @tchrist If the /t/ isn't realised by a flap then you will hear light aspiration here. A basic rule of thumb is close to zero aspiration following an [s] or in an unstressed syllable preceding a stress, and slight aspiration in syllables following a stress. Of course, if the /t/ is realised as a voiced flap there won't be any. – Araucaria Jan 18 '18 at 10:09
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As other people have pointed out, in fact the "t" in "relative" can be voiced and flapped/tapped in American English.

"Stress" is a word that different people use in different ways. It seems clear to me that an English word pronounced in isolation will have exactly one syllable with the "primary stress" (although Araucaria suggests in the comments that even this is debatable).

Beyond that, I think theories differ somewhat in the terminology used to describe stress, accent, vowel reduction and consonant lenition.

What is "stress" phonetically?

I want to briefly discuss the phonetic correlates of stress since some of the comments have brought up differences in how different people "hear" stress in words.

According to Mattys 2002, which looked at words starting with primary or secondary-stressed syllables followed by unstressed syllables,

the first syllable of initial-primary words (e.g., /'p̲r̲ɑ̲sɪ/ is higher pitched and longer than the second syllable in the same word (e.g., /'prɑs̲i̲). This contrast is virtually absent between the first and the second syllables of initial-secondary words (e.g., /"prɑsɪ/). With regard to amplitude, first syllables are louder than second syllables regardless of the stress pattern of the word. (pp. 258-259)

From this, it sounds like primary stress can in general be identified by the higher pitch (F0) and greater length (duration) of the syllable as well as the higher volume (amplitude) relative to the surrounding syllables. But syllables with secondary stress don't necessarily stand out in terms of pitch and duration from unstressed syllables.

I would guess based on this that it might be harder to hear the difference between a syllable with secondary stress and an unstressed syllable with an unreduced vowel than it is to hear the difference between primary stress and secondary stress.

Araucaria's comments below reminded me that it may actually not be correct to say that pitch is directly associated with primary stress per se. Rather, one viewpoint seems to be that high pitch is a realization in English of accent, something that is related to but distinct from stress.

A syllable with primary stress may receive pitch accent, but doesn't necessarily. This is my understanding after skimming "Sentential Prominence in English" by Carlos Gussenhoven, something that I hope to read more thoroughly in the future.

Although Gussenhoven distinguishes between the concept of pitch accent and the concept of stress, he does treat "primary stress" as a valid concept that is used in his formulation of accentuation rules. He says

every word is assumed to have primary stress, stress level “1,” on the syllable with main word stress (2780)

and

Accentuation is in part morphologically determined: SALamander has an unaccentable stressed syllable in penultimate position (2802)

My impression based on this—although it might very well be wrong—is that the "primary stress" of a word could be defined empirically as the last accentable stressed syllable in the word.

What is "secondary stress" and where does it occur in English?

According to Balogné Bérces Katalin's "The Pronunciation of English", the term "secondary stress" is correctly applied only to stressed syllables that occur before the primary-stressed syllable (p. 113). This definition seems to be related to a theoretical idea that all English words are stressed on the rightmost major stress ("prominence of the right edge") (p. 113). It's not clear to me if there is actually any way to differentiate syllables with secondary stress from syllables with unreduced vowels and some lower level of stress using phonetic as opposed to phonological criteria.

There are very few or no English words that start with two fully unstressed syllables (a blog post on John Wells's phonetic blog, "GIGO", identifies only "peradventure" and "foramuch" as possible exceptions to this generalization) so in long words with the primary stress on the third syllable or later, there is generally a secondary stress on either the first or second syllable. Often secondary stress corresponds to a primary stress in a related, shorter word (p. 114). A word can have more than one syllable with secondary stress (p. 110).

Alternative definitions of secondary stress

Some sources do seem to recognize the presence of secondary stress on syllables after the primary stressed syllable, but I haven't been able to find a good description of how this alternative terminological system works. Wells has another blog post "irritating hamburgers" where he writes:

native speakers tend to perceive the penultimate syllable [of "irritating"], teɪt, as being more strongly ‘stressed’ than the final syllable ɪŋ. But what they want to call ‘stress’ is arguably no more than a way of saying that the vowel is one of the strong ones. Actual rhythmic beats following the main word stress accent are all pretty optional, which is why the British tradition is not to show any secondary stress in words like this: ˈɪrɪteɪtɪŋ, not *ˈɪrɪˌteɪtɪŋ. The alternative tradition, usually followed in the States and (for example) Japan, is to recognize a secondary stress on the penultimate, írritàting.

I don't know if there is any theoretical relevance to using the term "secondary stress" to refer to syllables like this as opposed to the term Wells uses, "strong vowel", or the term Balogné Bérces uses, "tertiary stress" (discussed below).

"Tertiary stress" (some people may have this on the last syllable of "relative")

The absence of vowel reduction in syllables in other contexts than the ones mentioned above is sometimes taken to be a sign of some third kind of stress (not primary or secondary stress). Balogné Bérces call it "tertiary stress", and says that it can alternatively be called "minor stress" (p. 111).

John Wells has a blog post that presents a different terminological system where such syllables are called unstressed syllables with "strong" vowels, as opposed to unstressed syllables with "weak" vowels. He says that a stressed syllable can only have a strong vowel, but not vice versa:

Some analysts (particularly Americans) argue in the other direction, claiming that the presence of a strong vowel is sufficient evidence that the syllable in question is stressed. In the British tradition we regard them as unstressed.

("strong and weak")

Wells also mentions in this post that the American English t-flapping rule generally only operates when the following vowel is weak. However, the Bert Vaux paper that KarlG's answer links to indicates that it is pretty complicated and difficult to formulate a complete description of when t-voicing/flapping/tapping occurs in American English, so it seems possible that Wells's analysis has some issues.

In Wells's analysis, ɪ in unstressed syllables can be strong or weak, but it can be hard to figure out which one it is. Wells uses the presence of t-flapping in "emphatic" as evidence that this word has a weak vowel in the final syllable.

The variability between the pronunciation of "relative" with lenited, voiced, "flapped" or "tapped" t and the pronunciation with voiceless, less lenis t could be explained as a consequence of speakers varying between using "strong" ɪ and "weak" ɪ in the last syllable (or in Balogné Bérces's phraseology, varying between having tertiary stress and zero stess on the last syllable). How to explain that variation (which as Araucaria points out may exist between utterances made by the same speaker at different times, as well as between utterances made by different speakers) I don't know.

By Well's account, the use of a strong or weak vowel in a word is not necessarily fixed, but can vary depending on the circumstances. For example, reduced pronunciations of function words have weak vowels, while emphatic pronunciations have strong vowels. I think the variation of /oʊ/ and /ə/ in words like "progression" would fall under the same rubric.

For me:

  • t-voicing seems mandatory in the words I've thought about where the stressed syllable comes immediately before -tive: native, dative, stative, assertive, abortive. This corresponds with what Alice Turk says in the paper that Araucaria's answer links to. (I'm not sure that all of the rules in that paper are accurate for my accent: the statement that "Word-initial alveolars are never flapped" seems questionable to me. I think I can voice and tap/flap the initial consonant in "to" (e.g. in "go to the store") and Greg Lee posted an answer saying he can flap the "d" in "I don't know" and the "t" in "I'll go tomorrow/today".)

  • When the syllable preceding -tive is has a reduced vowel, voicing seems to be more optional. However, saying these words to myself, I still seem to often used voicing in relative, secretive (as in "secret"), positive, definitive, dispositive, competitive, repetitive, inquisitive, prohibitive.

    For some reason, I think I might feel less strongly inclined to voice the "t" in excitative, imaginative than in the words in the preceding list. But the pronunciations with voicing don't feel at all impossible, and may well be more common for me than the pronunciations without voicing.

    For all words of this type, not voicing the "t" feels like something that I might do more often in slow speech.

Sources not linked in-line

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Jan 19 '18 at 20:17
3

Bert Vaux contrasts, among other words, "capitalistic," which is flapped, and "militaristic," which is not. If you read the linked article, you'll realize that most any attempt to establish rules for when American English uses the flap and when not seems doomed to failure.

My guess, however, is that if you asked Americans to say:

Mother hates having all the relatives over for Thanksgiving.

there would be ample flapping, but not when “a is relative to b” (which has “relative” as an adjective as opposed to its use as a noun).

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    I don't understand "when a is relative to b." – aparente001 Dec 21 '17 at 12:57
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    thank you for you answer. I can't accept this answer because it's not detailed enough and doesn't answer the question directly. – David Haim Dec 21 '17 at 14:36
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    "Relative" as an adjective as opposed to its use as a noun, where I suspect flapping would occur in the sentence I provided. As for not answering the question directly, if you'd troubled yourself to read the linked article, you'd realize that most any attempt to establish rules for when American English uses the flap and when not seems doomed to failure. – KarlG Dec 21 '17 at 17:06
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    We don't have to have a single treatment of flapping that works for all dialects and styles of American English. For instance, I find that flapping between unstressed vowels is obligatory (other conditions being met), while for my teacher David Stampe , it is optional. He's from Indiana, and I'm from Ohio. – Greg Lee Jan 18 '18 at 1:59
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    That's a good paper from Vaux. I favor a transderivational constraint to account for the failure of flapping in "militaristic" -- people are aware of the related form "military" with secondary stress on "tar". – Greg Lee Jan 18 '18 at 2:05
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As a native American English speaker, in casual/faster speech I absolutely flap the "t" in "relative". However, in academic or formal settings, or if I was trying to enunciate the word for clarity, I would pronounce the t as /t/.

  1. The few videos on youglish I watched were all more formal, interview settings where it looked like the speaker was carefully trying to enunciate and make their argument. These are settings where I would have likely pronounced the t as /t/.

  2. So no, /ɹɛləɾɪv/ sounds totally normal to me.

  3. I am not familiar with any other words that break the "T-flapping" rule in formal settings, though I wouldn't be surprised if there were others.

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