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Should mistook be pronounced like “mis + took” — or like “misdook” (like the t in mistake)?

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    Do you find that latter pronunciation in any dictionary?
    – Robusto
    Mar 13 at 16:55
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    The same t sound in both is the same. No d sound.
    – Lambie
    Mar 13 at 18:21
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    @Lambie I'll let this video explain it. If you take a recording of (say) the word "store" and remove the initial "s," it clearly sounds like "door," not "tore."
    – alphabet
    Mar 13 at 19:00
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    @alphabet - interesting video, but representing the speech as a waveform leads to a confusion between a stop and a space. The stop is part of the speech, so when they "remove the ['s]" what they're really removing is "the [s + stop]". If you isolate the bit they removed (I just had a play with Audacity myself), it's clearly something other than a simple "s" sound - which is probably why they don't show that. Mar 13 at 19:54
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    You keep asking questions that suggest you are a native speaker of Hindi or Mandarin or Korean who is being miscued by your first language, particularly with respect to conflicting romanization systems. For example unlike English, Mandarin contrasts /tʰ/ with /t/ phonemically — but lacks a /d/ phoneme altogether. Romanization systems conflict in their representation of these, so Wade–Giles romanizes /t/ to t where Pinyin romanizes /t/ to d. See here. But this is valid only for Mandarin, not for English.
    – tchrist
    Mar 14 at 15:03

3 Answers 3

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Phonemically, both "took" and "mistook" use /t/, not /d/ or /ɾ/ (the d-like "intervocalic tap" you hear in "butter" or "ladder" in certain dialects).

Phonetically, on the other hand, there is a difference. All English fortis (which in English are voiceless) plosives (including /t/) have two allophones: aspirated [tʰ] and unaspirated [t]. When syllable initial, /t/ is actually [tʰ], we just drop the little superscript [ʰ] because the voicing distinction is usually enough, and it only comes up in cases like this. But when a plosive is no longer leading the syllable, it loses all its aspirations, and becomes unaspirated. Specifically in this case, [tʰ] becomes [t].

This is what you are hearing: Not a /d/, but a hopeless, unaspirated /t/. It's still a /t/, still voiceless, but it is also unaspirated, and voiced plosives, in English, are always unaspirated, to the point that people would be more likely to mistake a clipped recording of, say, "scold" for "gold" than "cold". Or, indeed, "stake" for "dake" - if "dake" were a common enough word.

As to your actual, underlying question: Yes, "mistook" is pronounced with the /s/ in the onset of the second syllable, rather than the coda of the first. The word, and its present form "mistake", have been around long enough that even people who study these things for a living might not realize that it's the prefix "mis-" appended to the verb "take". As such, the /s/ moves from first coda to second onset and the /t/ loses its aspiration as a result

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"mis + took", both are pronounced the same.

Mistake:

/mɪˈsteɪk/

Mistook:

/mɪˈstʊk/

Both have the "st" sound, there is no "d" when pronouncing either of these words.

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    @alphabet really? If if say 'dake' and 'dook' with 'mis-' before them they don't sound like 'mistake' and 'mistook'. Mar 13 at 19:28
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    @alphabet - you've linked to it twice, so I'll jump in twice. That's a great video about the psychology of expectation : suggest that people are hearing English when they're hearing French, or show pictures of the words you want them to hear, and you can fool anyone. Trouble is it doesn't acknowledge what it's doing. Peter Kay's Misheard Song Lyrics is funnier. Anyhow, I'm off to listen to Led Zeppelin backwards. Mar 13 at 20:24
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    @alphabet you seem keen to prove the dictionaries wrong, but there aren't any words in English that begin with 'sd-'. How, then can the 't' sound like a 'd'? Mar 13 at 20:52
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    @WeatherVane I've posted my own answer below that should (hopefully) clarify things.
    – alphabet
    Mar 14 at 3:03
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It is indeed, quite often, "misdook." Basically.

I took the liberty of downloading (American English) pronunciations of "mistook" from six online dictionaries, then removing everything up until the initial period of silence, i.e. the "mis." These pronunciations are from Collins, Merriam-Webster, OxfordLD, The Free Dictionary, Wiktionary, and Longman.

You can hear the results here.

As you can hear, the first four sound quite clearly like "dook." Only the last two sound like "took." (The one from OxfordLD might be somewhere in the middle, but to me it certainly seems closer to "dook.")

Wait, what?

Geoff Lindsey explains what's going on here. English does not contrast /t/ and /d/ after /s/, unless the /s/ is at the end of a morpheme. Unless you pronounce "mistake" as "mis|take," i.e. as a sequence of two separate morphemes, then this sound change will occur. The result is that the /t/ in "mistake" will be unaspirated. An unaspirated [t] at the start of a word will sound much more like a word-initial /d/ than a word-initial /t/, unless the word is itself preceded by a voiced sound, so if you chop off the "mis" it will sound like "dook," not "took." (In fact, a word starting with the phoneme /d/ is often pronounced with a partially, if not fully, devoiced [t]; the contrast between word-initial /t/ and /d/ is, when not preceded by a voiced sound, usually more a matter of aspiration than voicing.)

Edit: I also listened to 30 pronunciations of "mistook" on YouGlish at a very slow speed. In the ones I listened to, I heard "took" (i.e. with an aspirated [tʰ]) in 18 of them, and "dook" (with an unaspirated [t]) in 12 of them. Geoff Lindsey mentions that there's a class of words like this--dystopia is the one he cites--that are sometimes, but not always, seen as having a morpheme boundary, resulting in two possible pronunciations. I say the "dook" version and am quite surprised to learn that I may be in the minority.

One more note: As Weather Vane noted in the comments, you might actually find that, if you try to pronounce "mistook" with a voiced [d] sound (and without a morpheme boundary), it will still sound like you're saying the word "mistook," since English doesn't contrast voiced [d] and unaspirated [t] in that position. It makes the most sense to see either option, a [d] or an unaspirated [t], as a realization of the phoneme /d/.

So the dictionaries' transcriptions are wrong?

The problem is that dictionaries' phonemic transcriptions don't capture this loss of contrast. For example, OxfordLD transcribes "mistook" as /mɪˈstʊk/. This is really just a mistake (misdake?) on the dictionaries' part; it would be more correct to transcribe (transgribe?) it as /mɪˈsdʊk/, or to include both possible pronunciations, to reflect the phonemic reality. (That said, the morpheme-boundary issue does track the fact that dictionaries' phonemic transcriptions differ as to whether the /s/ belongs in the first or the second syllable of that word; one could likely explain all this in terms of syllable rather than morpheme boundaries, but I digress.)

Lindsey's CUBE dictionary has an option ("Analyses > mɪsdɛjk") to fix this issue; if you look up "mistook" with that option selected, it will give you a transcription with a /d/, /mɪsdɵ́k/ in his notation.

Isn't there a little bit of a [t] sound there, even in the "dook" pronunciation?

ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere noticed--if I understand that comment correctly--that, if you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear a brief voiceless stop just after the /s/ in mistook even in the unaspirated pronunciations. But you can hear the same devoicing at the start of many pronunciations of words starting with /d/ on their own if you cut them right. So that's no reason to transcribe it as a /t/ phoneme.

Edit: To make this point a bit clearer: listen to this audio. I took the British and American pronunciations of "duck" from OxfordLD, slowed them down ten times, and cut off everything starting from the middle of the vowel. As you can hear, the British pronunciation happens to start with a mostly voiced [d], whereas in the American one that consonant is partially devoiced, becoming more like a [t], as you can also see on the very first part of the spectrogram. (This isn't a difference between dialects, just between different instances of the same word.)

Note that this doesn't mean that "duck" sounds anything like "tuck," since in neither case is the initial sound aspirated. What's important is the lack of phonemic contrast between the voiced and devoiced versions (when neither is preceded by a voiced sound), which is why you'll have trouble hearing the difference between the initial consonants in these pronunciations of duck if you listen to them at a normal speed (which you can do here). (One note: it may help to imagine someone with an Indian accent saying the word "tuck"--note that this would sound a lot like the American pronunciation of "duck" on OxfordLD, but not like the British one; this is because many Indian speakers wouldn't aspirate the /t/ in tuck, unlike speakers of other dialects.)

This, ultimately, is why it doesn't matter that there may be a brief [t] sound even in the "misdook" pronunciation; we transcribe unaspirated [t] as the phoneme /d/ all the time when it doesn't contrast with a voiced [d], e.g. at the beginning of a word, so we should do so after an /s/ also.

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