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I'm not talking about "bidder" for "bitter" or "sidding" for "sitting," or "ladder" for "latter," etc. I'm talking about "Manhaddan," "Pudin," "rodden," "cerdin," "curdin" (for "certain" and "curtain"), and so on.

I first noticed this phenomenon ca. 2010. It seems to be spreading very slowly but steadily since then.

I freely admit I may be wrong (which is why I'm posting this question), but my intuitions tell me it's a vogue phenomenon. For context I should say that I'm almost completely against prescriptivism when it comes to naturally-evolved speech usage, and I can't stand ahistorical linguistic pedantry. But—I will admit to being driven crazy by pretentious ingroup fads. Also, this manner or mannerism itself has the character of pedantry, since the principle is so simple—"Make every glottal -t- into a -d-" and since it is practiced with bizarre, obsessive absoluteness, especially since it's nonstandard pronunciation. In fact, because I'm so aware of it, I'm sure I've heard at least two people flummoxed at overhearing themselves as they said something where the -d- sound actually altered sense—e.g., "I've ridden on cats," rather than "I've written on [the subject] of cats.").

I don't think this is regional—I've known people from California, New York City, and North Carolina who speak this way and have found no particular links in regional migrations, etc.

The only (admittedly soft) connections I've observed are the following.

  • Every person I've heard speak this way is under 55, and almost all are 40 or younger.
  • Almost all are highly educated—i.e., have graduated from "elite" private schools and colleges.
  • Until a year ago, I would've said everyone I'd heard speak this way was a political liberal, but I've now heard people on the right do it, too. (For the record, I'd probably be described as politically left.)
  • All the people I've heard speak this way are writers, scholars, intellectuals, professors, pundits, journalists, etc.

A few public figures who speak this way are Ezra Klein, Anderson Cooper, and Katrina Longworth (a film historian).

My questions are: Is this a recognized phenomenon? What is the disciplinarily correct way to describe it? And what is the best way to talk and think about it, with respect to cause?

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  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/493671/….
    – user 66974
    Mar 12, 2022 at 20:26
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    It's not new and it's not just older Americans. It's normal American English (and may be normal in the UK as well). The phenomenon is called a neutralization; in this case the phonemes /t/ and /d/, which are normally in contrast, neutralize their contrast between a stressed and an unstressed vowel, like ladder and latter, which are confused often because they're pronounced the same. Mar 12, 2022 at 20:39
  • Thank you! And—there may be a misunderstanding. I know in at least a dilettantish way about neutralization & I don't think it's that, though I could be wrong. But I did anticipate your examples above & what I'm describing is a bit more pointed & specific‚ not mere loss of contrast btwn /t/ & /d/ but a zeroing in on all /?/ to make it /d/; i.e. pick a /?/ that's widely unidiomatic & these speakers make it /d/! It seems the opposite of neutralization or relaxation. Re age I'm saying it's younger, not older, Americans. If you wanna hear exactly what I mean, listen to Klein or Longworth. Thanks!
    – Josh
    Mar 12, 2022 at 21:10
  • PS The phenomenon I'm describing concerns a class of people that, as a writer and academic, I've known very well from the inside for about thirty years. It contains individuals from every conceivable region. For two-thirds of that time, as a person relatively aware of and interested in language and usage, I knew of no one in this diverse class of people who spoke this way. In other words, my question may be linguistically ignorant on some level, & I may lack technical language, but I'm not utterly clueless and am making an effort to avoid newbie fallacies & biases. . . . Many thanks!
    – Josh
    Mar 12, 2022 at 21:25
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    The issue with imputing "bizarre, obsessive absoluteness" is that it ignores that it's not done consciously at all. My speech exhibits this feature and I only became aware of it after having my curiosity piqued by the way that some other speakers with this trait have the word "important" as an exception, i.e. pronounce the final syllable as /tʰənt/, which I experienced as a bizarre, jarring mid-word pause the first time I heard it. The other thing I want to note is that pronouncing the t as glottal, to my ears, can only be interpreted as an British accent or an imitation thereof.
    – PoolOfPeas
    Mar 16, 2022 at 0:11

2 Answers 2

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You are asking about words ending in /tən/ or /tn̩/.

Some English speakers find that [ən], the vowel schwa followed by the consonant [n], and [n̩], a syllabic form of the consonant [n], sound clearly distinct. To other speakers, these don't sound distinct. The difference doesn't contribute to any contrast in meaning in English, but phonetic changes might be influenced by which variant a speaker uses.

The pronunciation of these words varies quite a bit. There is no authority that determines what is "correct" in English with regards to things like this.

An attempt to explain why: it might be based on a change in how common it is to pronounce the following -en sound as a syllabic consonant

The pronunciation where /t/ is pronounced like a d sound follows a general pattern where /t/ between vowels (or after /r/ and before a vowel) is frequently changed into a voiced consonant that sounds like /d/, as in words that you mention like bitter and sitting. (Phonetically, the consonant is usually an alveolar flap or tap, written [ɾ] in the international phonetic alphabet, but American English speakers hear this as a /d/ sound.)

In terms of explaining what's going on, here's my hypothesis. It seems likely that the orginal reason for /t/ not being voiced to a d-like sound in words ending in a vowel + /t/ + -en is because of the use of the pronunciation with syllabic [n̩]. For speakers who use this pronunciation, there is no vowel sound after the /t/, which would explain why voicing, which usually applies between vowels, doesn't occur. Instead of being voiced, /t/ is very often glottalized in this context, producing a pronunciation containing a glottal stop (the sound in the middle of uh-oh, written [ʔ] in the international phonetic alphabet)—that is, [ʔn̩]. This fits with the possible occurrence of glottalization for syllable-final /t/ in other contexts where it falls directly before a consonant, such as in witness.

However, it appears that the use of syllabic [n̩] at the end of words is on the downtrend, with younger speakers being more likely to favor [ən]. (I don't have a citation for this, or an explanation for it. This is my anecdotal impression based on seeing a number of examples of older speakers commenting that they hear younger speakers using an unfamiliar vowel sound in words that traditionally ended in [tn̩]; the reports vary on how exactly they describe the vowel, but my guess is that it's simply [ə] which older speakers are contrasting with their own syllabic nasal.)

When [ən] is used instead of [n̩], we have two possibilities:

  • Keep pronouncing /t/ as a voiceless sound, even between vowels. There is no longer a clear phonetic motivation to do this if the speaker uses [ən] instead of [n̩]. Some speakers do use [ʔən], but apparently some people find that this sounds odd to them (I think impressionistic descriptions of /t/ being "lost" in words of this type actually refer to pronunciations ending in [ʔən]).

  • Pronounce /t/ as a voiced sound in accordance with the usual pattern.

Links

Previous ELU Stack Exchange posts about variation in words ending in /ən/ or /n̩/:

External links:

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  • Thanks very much! That's helpful & plausible though I still wonder if it's (or is also) a social/class marker. This'll sound like confirmation bias but my copious, admittedly anecdotal evidence is very specific (see above), & maybe there's room for that reading?—why eg don't those who syllabify these /n/ endings "correct" to [-tən] rather than [-?ən]? [-dən]'s easier? Or—it occurs to me—reverse snobbism? Mustn't sound Brit? That might fit many I hear speak this way, ie linguistically- but also socially-conscious (projecting vernacular modesty). (I'd upvote you but have password issues! Sorry!)
    – Josh
    Mar 13, 2022 at 2:11
  • Undisciplined speculation, I know! Also it's not about prescriptions or proscriptions for me but psychology—determining ratio of affectation to "natural" usage. I've never heard a child speak this way—only hypereducated adults paid to speak publicly! Out of curiosity, have you listened for this trait in Klein or, say, Longworth? It seems very (fastidiously) concerted, but the concertedness differs from that of regional accents in seeming a recent, non-regional variation tacked on to multiple varieties of "standard" AmEng by 1 subset of 1 social sphere. . . . And now I will stop. Thanks again!
    – Josh
    Mar 13, 2022 at 2:42
  • @Josh: While [-tən] is phonetically possible, it would be equally irregular as [ʔən] since [t] doesn't usually occur before an unstressed vowel sound in this kind of context any more than it does in words like "kitted", "knitted" etc. I haven't listened for this phenomenon, only read other people's reports of it.
    – herisson
    Mar 13, 2022 at 2:52
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    Virtually every speech variation has a social pattern of use. If it's noticeable, it's available for ingroup marking, and likely has been used that way already. There is no "natural" usage -- all language is used socially, and reinforces cultural norms. Especially if they're unconscious, like pronunciation habits. Mar 13, 2022 at 16:37
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John Lawler writes:

It's not new and it's not just older Americans. It's normal American English (and may be normal in the UK as well). The phenomenon is called a neutralization; in this case the phonemes /t/ and /d/, which are normally in contrast, neutralize their contrast between a stressed and an unstressed vowel, [as in] ladder and latter, which are often confused because they're pronounced the same.

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    I'd say it's not normal in the UK. In spite of Chico's memorable line: << CHICO: " ... Monday we watch Firefly's house. But he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us. He no show up. Wednesday, he go to the ball game, but we fool him. We no show up.... Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game. So we stayed home. We listened to it over the radio". MAN: "Then you didn't shadow Firefly!" CHICO: "Oh, sure, we shadow Firefly. We shadow him all day." MAN: "What day was that?" CHICO:" It was Shadowday! That's some joke, eh, Boss!" >> Dec 12, 2023 at 11:42

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