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I usually refer to Cambridge Dictionary for pronunciation. For mental they have the IPA of:

mental

adjective · UK /ˈmen.tᵊl/ US /-t̬ᵊl/

When I click on the US pronunciation, I hear them saying /ˈmen.dəl/ with a D. You can see mental on Cambridge at this link.

But when I check the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary for the US pronunciation, I hear /ˈmen.təl/ same UK? You can see the pronunciation at this link.

My question is, which one of those is right and which one of those wrong?

  • In that context (following a stressed vowel), American pronunciation normally neutralizes /t/ and /d/, pronouncing both as an alveolar flap [ɾ]. An intervening nasal as in mental doesn't affect the flapping (in many cases the nasal would simply appear as a nasalized stressed vowel). This neutralization is the reason for the seeming homophony in American speech of matter and madder, for example. As it happens, phonemic contrasts are not universal. – John Lawler Jul 18 '18 at 15:50
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    @JohnLawler The computer-generated voice at Cambridge is fibbing: it really does sound like Mendel there, which nobody says. Longman’s version is correct. – tchrist Jul 18 '18 at 15:54
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    The pronunciation at Cambridge sounds like something between /t/ and /d/, but it's hard to tell because it's so short and unstressed. I think it's just indicating that our T's are often not as staccato as Brits. – Barmar Jul 18 '18 at 16:12
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    Listen to all the other on-line dictionaries for American pronunciation. They all aspirate the 't' distinctly, which is articulate American pronunciation. There is a process of softening the 't' in American speech where in fast non-articulate speech it just gets dropped (ie /menl/) but no one says /mendl/. – Mitch Jul 18 '18 at 17:16
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The bug here is that the computer-generated voice given at Cambridge is lying to you. It’s simply wrong: nobody in America pronounces mental to make it sound just Gregor Mendel’s surname.

The pronunciation at the Longman link by a real speaker is correct. Moreover, those are the same pronunciation for both UK and US. There is no phonemic difference here between countries.

  • Is Cambridge really computer generated? I couldn't tell. But I listened to dictionary.com and it was noticeably artificial. I don't think they are entirely discountable, but it does allow a lot of skepticism for the nuances we're asking here. – Mitch Jul 18 '18 at 17:18
  • Never underestimate the power of human stupidity... I'm sure there are people, perhaps especially here in America, who mispronounce it that way (heck, there are folks who say "would of"!) but yes, "mendel" is certainly not the usual or accepted pronunciation. 8^) – Roger Sinasohn Jul 18 '18 at 17:45
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    @RogerSinasohn Nobody says "would of", no not one. They say /ˈwʊdəv/. – tchrist Jul 18 '18 at 17:52
  • t's not a computer generated voice. If it were, mantle and mental would have the same consonant (represented in the Cambridge dictionary by [t̬] , which undoubtedly stands for a flapped /t/). They don't. – Peter Shor Jul 18 '18 at 18:18
  • It's not computer-generated. The voice actor was probably misled by the transcription. – Nardog Jul 19 '18 at 5:31
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Some dictionaries such as Cambridge use the letter 't̬', the International Phonetic Alphabet character meaning [t] but voiced, i.e. [d], for an instance of /t/ that may undergo flapping in North American English. This is not a problem for /t/ that is pronounced consistently the same as /d/ in the same environment, as in latter and ladder, because /t/ and /d/ here are pronounced identically as a tap (aka flap; IPA: [ɾ]). Some other dictionaries therefore use 'd', because the difference between /t/ and /d/ is neutralized in these contexts.†

Flapping of /t/ is almost always present after a stressed syllable, as in notice, protestant, etc., in North American English, but not necessarily so in other environments. In positive, ability, monitor, etc., /t/ may not be pronounced as [ɾ] as often as in the aforementioned words. But dictionaries which use 't̬' do often use 't̬' for /t/ in these environments too, so for these words 't̬' is better understood as a shorthand for "/t/ that may optionally be pronounced as [ɾ], but not always".

Adding to the confusion, these dictionaries also use 't̬' for /t/ in words like winter, which may be pronounced the same as winner in North America. But winter never rhymes with hinder, nor does center with gender.†† What they should indicate instead, in my opinion, is the fact that /t/ in an intervocalic /nt/ cluster may be omitted, not voiced. Some other dictionaries therefore transcribe, quite rightly in my view, e.g. winter as /ˈwɪn(t)ər/. (But note the /nt/-cluster reduction isn't quite as ubiquitous as the flapping of /t/ following stress.)

TL;DR: So in dictionaries like Cambridge, the American pronunciation notations for words like mental, /ˈmen.t̬ᵊl/, are better understood as "either [ˈmen.tᵊl] or [ˈmen.ᵊl]",††† even though /ˈlæt̬.ɚ/ means always the same as /ˈlæd.ɚ/ (phonetically [ˈlæɾ.ɚ]), and /ˈpɑː.zə.t̬ɪv/ means "either [ˈpɑː.zə.tɪv] or [ˈpɑː.zə.ɾɪv]".


† Even the author of a pronunciation dictionary that uses 't̬' approves of the use of 'd' for flapped /t/ (see the 23 Sept '08 entry).

†† There are a handful of exceptions: seventy, ninety, and carpenter, in which /nt/ may be pronounced not just with [nt] or [ɾ] but also with [nd]. I am not aware, however, of such words other than these three.

††† To be precise, the result of the /nt/ reduction is usually a nasalized tap [ɾ̃] (a shorter [n]), but /n/ in the same context (as in winner) is also often [ɾ̃], so I found it would be too finicky to make a distinction between [n] and [ɾ̃] here. See the Wikipedia article for more.

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As other users have mentioned, /nt/ may be optionally lenited in American English in the same contexts where /t/ may be lenited to a voiced "flap" or "tap" sound. The usual phonetic transcription I have seen used for the reduced "nt" cluster is a nasalized flap/tap: words like "winter" and "center" may be pronounced as [wiɾ̃ɚ] and [sɛɾ̃ɚ] respectively.

It's not entirely clear to me if this is merged with /n/ for all speakers [edit: I just noticed that the Wikipedia article that Nardog linked to says this varies by dialect], but in any case, the sound [ɾ̃] is perceived as at least very close to [n], so this phenomenon makes the words sound like "winner" and "senner".

I don't feel like this is particularly likely with the word "mental", but I think I have heard "flapping" of the /nt/ in the similarly formed word "environmental".

Using [nt] should always sound OK, so that's the pronunciation that I would recommend for a non-native speaker.

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