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Although some people say that flap-t [ɾ] is used if phonemic /t/ is between two vowels as in matter [ˈmædəɹ], I think that definition is incomplete because if phonemic /t/ occurs before a stressed vowel, then Americans still say a ‘normal’ [tʰ] (EDITOR: with an aspirated release).

For example, North Americans will say potato as [pəˈtʰe(ɪ)doʊ]. The first /t/ occurs before a stressed syllable and it is still pronounced as a ‘normal’ aspirated [tʰ]. However, the second /t/ comes before an unstressed syllable and thus it can be pronounced as a flap-t [ɾ] and no aspiration.

However, I feel that the unaspirated North American flap-t [ɾ] is used whenever it comes before an unstressed syllable, not necessarily only when it falls before two vowels: if phonemic /t/ comes before any unstressed syllable at all, then phonemic /t/ sounds like a quick unaspirated [d] whenever North Americans say it.

I am not sure if my feeling is correct.

But I feel she looked at me sounds like [ʃiː lʊkd æt mi] although /t/ does not fall between two vowels here. There is no aspiration.

Do North Americans pronounce she looked at me as [ʃiː lʊkt æt mi] with phonemic /t/ as phonetic [t], or as [ʃiː lʊkd æt mi] with phonemic /t/ as phonetic [d~ɾ]?

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    I'm American, and I would use a real /t/ there, and not a flap. But not all Americans speak the same. I do use a flap after an /r/ and before an unstressed vowel. Jun 12, 2022 at 12:08
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    (continued) So for me, sorted and sordid both have a flap, but molted and moulded are /t/ and /d/. Jun 12, 2022 at 12:20
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    The /t/ in looked at me t would sound like /d/ to Chinese speakers, because the difference between /t/ and /d/ in Chinese is whether they are aspirated or not, and this /t/ is an unaspirated, unvoiced consonant. (And probably for some other languages as well. Jun 29, 2022 at 19:37
  • Tom, I’ve taken the liberty to edit your question to make it flow better & use formatting conventions we're more familiar with; you can undo my changes if you want. Here you mentioned that you’re Vietnamese and having trouble with the English /t/ because sometimes it has “more air” than it has after consonants. I bet @PeterShor is right about Asian speakers hearing unaspirated [t] as [d] because they’re listening for aspiration. But English lacks ᴘʜᴏɴᴇᴍɪᴄ aspiration, so [tʰ] in Thailand is ᴘʜᴏɴᴇᴛɪᴄ; aspiration varies greatly w/o changing the word.
    – tchrist
    Jul 11, 2022 at 0:48

3 Answers 3

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From a phonological perspective, a typical transcription for an informal American English pronunciation of "she looked at me" would be:

/ʃiːˈlʊktətmi/

This would probably be produced by a native American English speaker with a flap [ɾ] for the first /t/ and a glottal stop [ʔ] for the second /t/:

[ʃiːˈlʊkɾəʔmi]

Both flap and glottal stop are allophones of /t/ in American English. The production of a /t/ phoneme as a flap [ɾ] does not mean that the underlying phonemic representation is a /d/—the phonemic representation /ʃiː lʊkd æt mi/ is not accurate.

The distinction between flap [ɾ] and [d] or [t] is whether or not there is pressure differential that builds up during tongue contact or not. The Wikipedia article about flap says "there is no buildup of air pressure behind the place of articulation and consequently no release burst."

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    Explain to me, if you would, how one could possibly put a /d/ in talked for the d?? It's impossible because then you'd get: walk-ed. This is the same in all varieties of English that uses the simple past, for example.
    – Lambie
    Jun 29, 2022 at 22:26
  • It is physiologically possible to restart vocal cord vibrations after the release of the [k] and before closure of the following coronal stop ([t] or [d]) without creating enough openness in the vocal tract to produce a vowel. If you have voicing before and after the coronal stop, then it'd pretty hard to argue "it's not a [d]". This paper claims that such mixed-voiced clusters can even be phonemic in some languages, at least word-initially.
    – nohat
    Jul 5, 2022 at 16:22
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    Geesus, my two's dyslexia is at it again. Right, okay: I am saying that talk and talked are talk [k] and tal[k][t]. tal[k][d] is impossible in English.
    – Lambie
    Jul 5, 2022 at 16:45
  • @nohat Based on Tom the asker’s other question, I'm wondering whether maybe he only hears [tʰ] as /t/ and not its various other allophones. Perhaps he isn't sufficiently used to mentally mapping not just a coronal tap/flap [ɾ] but more importantly an unaspirated [t] (or even an "unreleased" [t̚] or glottal [ʔ]) to phonemic /t/, and so he perceives it more as a /d/ phoneme instead—even though you and I wouldn't do so when listening to native English speakers.
    – tchrist
    Jul 11, 2022 at 1:02
  • I just said it quickly, and I think it came out as [ʃiːˈlʊktəʔmi]. Your transcription, /ʃiːˈlʊktətmi/, is what came out when I said it more carefully.
    – Davislor
    Jul 11, 2022 at 16:06
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John Lawler wrote in a comment:

No English speaker pronounces the past tense morpheme as /d/ after an /f/ or a /k/. The rule is that the past tense morpheme is pronounced /t/ after voiceless sounds, /d/ after voiced sounds, and /əd/ after /t/ or /d/. Viz left, looked, locked, for /t/, rained, needled, pinned for /d/, and regretted, handed, printed for /əd/. That's the way it is in English, no matter how things are spelled. Pronunciation doesn't come from letters; letters come from pronunciation. Or they did, once, and they've never changed, though English has.

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    Yes, and in any case it's not possible really to do a /d/ in words talked and walked. Sometimes, Spanish or other speakers learning English will try, and you get: walk-ed and talk-ed, an English pronunciation mistake. Teaching that final /t/ sound is a bitch.
    – Lambie
    Jun 29, 2022 at 20:32
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Although some people say that Flap T is used if the T is between 2 vowels as in "matter" /ˈmædər/.

The truth is more complex, depends on the dialect, and cannot be stated succintly. See:

https://web.archive.org/web/20010615151824/http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~ling80/assignments/flap.pdf

The possibility of flapping includes /d/, /n/, and /nt/ at least. From Wikipedia:

In some varieties, /d/, the voiced counterpart of /t/, may also be frequently pronounced as a flap in such positions, making pairs of words like latter and ladder sound similar or identical. In similar positions, the combination /nt/ may be pronounced as a nasalized flap [ɾ̃], making winter sound similar or identical to winner.

Some environments seem to prevent flapping:

Morpheme-internally, the vowel following the flap must not only be unstressed but also be a reduced one (namely /ə/, morpheme-final or prevocalic /i, oʊ/, or /ɪ/ preceding /ŋ/, /k/, etc.[a]),[25][26] so words like botox, retail, and latex are not flapped in spite of the primary stress on the first syllables,[11] while pity, motto, and Keating can be.[25] The second syllables in the former set of words can thus be considered as having secondary stress.[6]

Word-medial flapping is also prohibited in foot-initial positions. This prevents words such as militaristic, spirantization, and Mediterranean from flapping, despite capitalistic and alphabetization, for example, being flapped. This is known as the Withgott effect.[27][28]

And then you have:

Exceptions include the preposition/particle to and words derived from it, such as today, tonight, tomorrow, and together, wherein /t/ may be flapped when intervocalic (as in go to sleep [ˌɡoʊɾəˈslip]).[32] In Australian English, numerals thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen are often flapped despite the second vowel being stressed.[33][34] In a handful of words such as seventy, ninety, and carpenter, /nt/ is frequently pronounced as [nd], retaining /n/ and voicing /t/, although it may still become [ɾ̃] in rapid speech.[35][36]

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