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In American English, I’ve noticed that the word bought sometimes sounds like bop when followed by a word starting with a bilabial consonant, such as [p], [b], or [m].

For example, She bought me a car sounds like [ʃɪ ˈbɑp m̩i (j)ə ˈkʰɑɹ].

Is this a valid interpretation?

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    Do you have a clip we can listen to? Are you sure you aren't mishearing a glottal stop there, so [ˈbɔʔ] instead? Have you transcribed she as though it were the start of ship to show the weak pronoun? If so, why didn't you do so for me as well? Why have you marked [m] as a syllabic consonant? Your curious choice of the FATHER vowel for bought suggests you may be listening to Los Angeles or Hollywood natives.
    – tchrist
    Apr 12 at 11:51

2 Answers 2

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Short answer (tl;dr):

Yes, the last consonant in the word bought may often be realised as a [p] before the word me.


The full story

In General American, a syllable final /t/ followed by a consonant will most often be realised as a glottal stop, [ʔ]. Alternatively, it may be realised as a glottally reinforced alveolar stop, where there is a complete closure of the glottis swiftly followed by a complete closure made by the tongue at the alveolar ridge (that little shelf behind your top teeth). In other words, it may be realised as [ ʔt ]. Lastly, for our purposes, it may even be realised as [t].

A canonical /t/, in other words a /t/ realised as [t], is made using the tongue at the alveolar ridge, and is thus dubbed an 'alveolar' consonant. The other alveolar consonants in English are /t d n s z l/. In English all the consonants made on the alveolar ridge are highly unstable and variously subject to different phonological and phonetic processes. Such processes include but are not limited to:

  • elision (being omitted)
  • de-alveolar assimilation (being made at a different point in the mouth from the alveloar ridge depending on preceding or following sounds)
  • assimilation of manner (becoming a different type of sound when influenced by an adjacent sound)
  • assimilation of voicing (becoming voiced or devoiced under the influence of adjacent sounds)
  • coalescent assimilation (fusing together with an adjacent sound to produce a third sound different from either of the two original sounds)
  • having allophones that are very radically different from their canonical realisations depending on their position in the syllable

The process that is affecting what the Original Poster is hearing is ᴅᴇ-ᴀʟᴠᴇᴏʟᴀʀ ᴀssɪᴍɪʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, which is a specific type of ᴀssɪᴍɪʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴏғ ᴘʟᴀᴄᴇ. All of the alveolar consonants are subject to de-alveolar assimilation to some degree, but this happens most of all with the consonants /t, d, n/.

When the consonants /t, d, n/ precede a bilabial consonant (one made with the lips), in other words when they precede the consonants /p, b, m/ and to a lesser extent /w/, they will themselves often become bilabial. So /t/ will change to /p/, /d/ to /b/, and /n/ to /m/. Here are some examples:

  • Google dot com --> Google dok com.
  • good practice --> goob practice
  • red wine --> reb wine
  • go sunbathing --> go sumbathing

So, in those cases where a General American speaker might use a syllable-final [t] or a syllable-final glottally reinforced /t/, i.e. [ ʔt ], they might use [p] or [ ʔp ] when the next word or syllable happens to begin with a bilabial.

This is exactly what is happening in the Original Poster's example, where the /t/ at the end of the word bought precedes the bilabial /m/, the first segment in the word me. In the cases which the Original Poster is thinking of, the speakers have a COT-CAUGHT or possibly a PALM, LOT, THOUGHT (there are several possibilities) merger; in other words they have the same vowel in those two (or three) words. This means that for such speakers the words bop and bought may sound identical when preceding a word beginning with a bilabial.

Note, however, that the last consonant in bought may be realised as a [p] in such environments regardless of the realisation of the vowel.

Giving the Original Poster the benefit of the doubt therefore, as we rightly should, their transcription of what they are hearing is basically correct1:

  • [ʃi ˈbɑp mi ə ˈkʰɑɹ]

The Original Poster has razor sharp ears!

That's all folks!


1Technically, the [m] should not be syllabic, and we need the same vowels at the end of me and she. I've used [ɑ] in the words bought and car as per the American transcription given in the Cambridge Dictionary .

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    Can’t buy this: “red wine --> reb wine” Apr 12 at 15:30
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    Nah, “samwitch" here (West Coast). The “(b)w” sounds like you have a cold. Where y’all attesting from? Apr 12 at 15:56
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    @TinfoilHat I definitely assimilate the /d/ in "red wine," but the resulting sound isn't really a [b], since my lips sort of tighten but don't actually close. Dunno what the right transcription for the sound I'm making is.
    – alphabet
    Apr 12 at 16:41
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    As an orthographic shorthand, reb wine sort of works, but it does hide the fact that the assimilation there is less complete than in, say, rek coat or reb boat. An actual full bilabial closure may be attested, but it is not the norm (I’m sure you could find attestations of reg wine, too). It would be much more common to pronounce it as @alphabet describes – lips narrowing and rounding in preparation for [w], but without fully closing, and maintaining a partial (though incomplete) glottal constriction. Something like ['ɹεβ̰ʷ.'waɪn] would be a reasonable way to transcribe it. Apr 13 at 12:19
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    @Aruralreader You've heard it, but you haven't heard it! When you turn up for your first phonetics class, they get you to transcribe what you hear. Then they tell you what was actually said, and none of the students believe them. Then you listen again, or they chop bits up for you and isolate them, and it's absolutely mind-bending all the stuff that you've never noticed before and also all the tricks that your mind plays on you while you're processing stuff! Apr 13 at 15:59
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I've noticed that the word 'bought' sometimes sounds like 'bop'

What is said is [ʃɪ ˈbɑt m̩i (j)ə ˈkʰɑɹ].

This is an example of the cot-caught merger (chiefly found in the eastern western side of the USA. The following consonant is unstressed (sometimes to the point of inaudibility) but, basically, unchanged.

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    Alas, that entire matter is far too complex to reduce to any broad statement that's also true enough to be applicable everywhere. You have to look not just at COT–CAUGHT but also at rounded LOT and the “On” line and at multiple mergers and splits in COT–CAUGHT, FATHER–BOTHER, FATHER–PALM, FOUGHT–FART, LOT–CLOTH, CLOTH–THOUGHT, GONE–LAWN, TRAP–BATH — plus several others besides.
    – tchrist
    Apr 12 at 13:41
  • @Peter Shor Thank you. I have edited.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 14 at 8:56
  • No, it sounds like bopme because it is easier to say a p than a t followed by an m. For the t in bought, you have to first stop the air and then say the bilabial m[e]. This is not "bought" without context. "She bought me a car". I guess most answerers aren't thinking about ease of articulation.
    – Lambie
    Apr 14 at 19:16
  • @Lambie That clearly can't be the main reason, though. It's 'easier' to say "a phanton night" that "a phantom night", but the former is not an alternative pronunciation of the latter in English. Apr 18 at 10:00

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