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In English, there are three (phonemic) voiceless stops: /t/, /k/, /p/. In most if not all American accents, a /t/ between vowels (the first of which is usually stressed and the second unstressed) is pronounced as a flap--the alveolar flap/tap. So we say [ɾ] is an allophone of /t/. English does not have phonemic ɾ but phonetically every (well, not every but most) consonant can occur in English.

The /t/ is prone to becoming flap but I haven't seen that happen to other voiceless stops like /k/ and /p/ when they are between vowels. Is there any reason why it only happens to /t/ in English?

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  • Are you asking why /p/ has no [b] allophone, and /k/ no [g]? BTW you're unlikely to find a coronal tap in words like kitten or button, retake or detail, the last no matter whether noun or verb so with either stress pattern.
    – tchrist
    Jul 9, 2021 at 6:14
  • The question isn't clear. Are you asking why /p/ and /k/ are never realised as an alveolar flap/tap, or are you asking why there are no bilabial and velar flaps/taps in English?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 9, 2021 at 10:17
  • For what it's worth, a voiced bilabial flap does exist as an allophone in some languages, but is rare: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_bilabial_flap
    – Stuart F
    Jul 9, 2021 at 10:18
  • There is a lot about phonetics that is 'regular' - you can place your phonemes in a multidimensional feature chart (place, manner, voicing, aspiration, etc) with lots of parallelism. But the mouth itself isn't a regular structure. The tip of the tongue is not the same as the lips is not the same as the back of the tongue etc etc etc. There will be some combos that will be more likely than others there's no guarantee of a systematic appearance or not of features.
    – Mitch
    Jul 9, 2021 at 12:42
  • But then also there are some patterns that appear in one language family and not in another. For example, English doesn't have a bilabial or velar fricative corresponding to stops, yet other languages (eg Spanish) do.
    – Mitch
    Jul 9, 2021 at 12:45

3 Answers 3

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I'm going to propose that this phenomenon has nothing to do with voiceless stops. I think it's worth pointing out that [ɾ] is an allophone of the voiced /d/ in at least as many accents as [ɾ] is an allophone of /t/. Though, I suspect that /d/ is flapped/tapped in more accents for the reason that Brits so commonly ask why Americans/Canadians/Australians use a D in place of T, which implies they perceive [ɾ] an an allophone of /d/ but not /t/.

(Wikipedia)

In North American English, /d/, the voiced counterpart of /t/, in such positions is also frequently pronounced as a flap, making pairs of words like latter and ladder sound similar or identical.

Which might lead one to conclude that flaps/taps are not a product of voicelessness or plosivity at all. /t/ and /d/ are realized as a flap/tap in some contexts because these sounds are all alveolar, while /k/ and /p/ are velar and bilabial respectively. Though there are apparently velar taps and bilabial flaps in existence, these are exceedingly rare, to the point there is not even an IPA symbol for the velar tap, and the bilabial flap only exists (primarily as an allophone of a labiodental flap) in a small group of Central African Languages. This might imply that ease of articulation is a factor in why these sounds are not as widespread as alveolar flaps. (Note: flaps/taps can be voiced or unvoiced.)

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    Ah... this makes a lot of sense. Thanks! (I've upvoted and will accept it if I don't get another answer worthy of accepting.)
    – user387044
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:12
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"A flap (also: alveolar tap or single tap trill) is a term that describes a speech sound produced when the tongue quickly and briefly makes contact with the ridge behind the upper front teeth. " https://dailycues.com/learn/iqpedia/pages/flap/

I don't think it's possible to pronounce 'k' or 'p' whilst simultaneously touching the ridge behind your teeth with your tongue.

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    Thanks for the answer however I think you have misunderstood the question. I am not asking about alveolar flap in particular, my question is about "flap" which doesn't have to be alveolar. I'm asking if /t/ has that kind of allophone, why not /p/ and /k/?
    – user387044
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:08
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    The velar and labial articulators are flat and close over an area. They can slap (as in velar ingressives or loud kisses) but they can't flap (except in a trill); the dental/alveolar articulators, however, are different and the tonguetip is easy to tap. It's all architecture. Jul 9, 2021 at 14:17
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    your source is misleading. The definition it gives is specifically that of an alveolar flap, which in the context of English is often referred to simply as a flap without any qualifier, as it is the only flap in common use. A flap need not involve any contact with the alveolar ridge
    – Tristan
    Jul 9, 2021 at 14:22
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As Prof John Lawler said in a comment:

The velar and labial articulators are flat and close over an area. They can slap (as in velar ingressives or loud kisses) but they can't flap (except in a trill); the dental/alveolar articulators, however, are different and the tonguetip is easy to tap. It's all architecture.

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