# What's the rule dictating when to use aspirated and unaspirated [t] in English? [closed]

I have a degree assignment and I need to explain the rule that says when to use an aspirated [t] and when to use an unaspirated [t] since they are in complementary distribution in British English. This isn't the work I have to do, it's just evidence for a point I'm trying to make, therefore there is no data to work off. The only examples I have are the ones I know which is that "tap" has an aspirated [t] and "stop" has an unapspirated [t].

• Presumably you were given some data along with the assignment, which you're supposed to analyze to get the answer. As a general rule we don't do people's homework here, but even if we did, we'd need the data.
– Draconis
Dec 4, 2022 at 22:03
• I’m voting to close this question because we don't do people's homework for them. Dec 4, 2022 at 22:44
• @jlawler this isn't the assessed work, it's me trying to understand something before I use it as evidence for a different point. I wouldn't ask anyone to answer the actual question for me that defeats the whole point and would be a huge waste of my money for going to uni in the first place lol Dec 4, 2022 at 23:15
• @Draconis the data we were given was a list of word pairs in contrastive distribution. Since the question requires a longer answer I wanted to talk about complementary distribution in English and the best example I know is the aspirated and unaspirated [t]. This is not cheating. Dec 4, 2022 at 23:32
• A fatal problem for this question is that there is no such thing as "British English". If you've been to London and Newcastle, or ever watched the BBC in the past 30 years, you know what I mean. But since you don't need to use a British-specific answer to understand the logic of problem solving, it is in principle answerable. Dec 5, 2022 at 1:53

Since the question is about the method of determining the rule for complementary distribution and not specifically about British English, this can be illustrated with analogous analysis of American English. There are at least 6 variants of /t/ to be concerned with: aspirated [tʰ], unreleased [t̚], unaspirated (released) [t], flapped [ɾ], retracted (affricated) [ʈ] and [ʔ]. Examples are "tea" [tʰ], "hit" [t̚], "stick" [t], "water" [ɾ], "tree" [ʈ] and "rotten" [ʔ]. The idea of "complementary distribution" is that language sounds come in two varieties, the "basic sound" a.k.a. the phoneme, and the physical realization in a particular physical context. In (some dialects of) American English, the basic sound /t/ is pronounced in a fashion that somewhat resembles "ch" when it comes before "r", as in "tree, true, train". If we write that variant of /t/ as [ʈ] we would find that [tʰ] never appears before /r/, and [ʈ] always appears before /r/.

We actually have to look at the distribution of all of the variants of /t/ to solve this, if we are being honest, but often we just massage the data to avoid problems. For example, unreleased [t̚] appears after a vocoid when it is in syllable-final position (mat, mart, but not apt, and variably in fault depending on what kind of "l" is used in the dialect). We would just give [mæt, mart, falt] as the transcriptions of those words, if we want to simplify the problem. To make the problem easier to solve, I will omit crucial examples that involve glottal stop, and I will treat the retracted and unreleased variant as phonetic "t". You can also ignore the flap [ɾ] but only if the problem is expanded to [k,p] vs. [kʰ,pʰ].

Comparing "kill, pill, till" with [kʰ,pʰ,tʰ] and "skill, spill, still" with [k,p,t] we can see that voiceless stops at the beginning of the word are aspirated and ones after s are unaspirated. Considering "acquire, appear, attain", where stress is on the second syllable and we have aspirated consonants, we see that aspiration is not limited to word-initial position. Then considering "hacker, trapper" with an unaspirated consonant and stress on the first syllable, we see that you can get both aspirated and unaspirated consonants between vowels – the difference relates to where the stress is. I left out "writer" because instead of getting an unaspirated stop for /t/ between vowels, you get a flap. This is because of another later rule that changes unaspirated t into [ɾ] when preceded by a vocoid and followed by a vowel.

When you expand the examples to include "sinker, whimper, winter" or "milker, helper, falter", we notice that the stop is unaspirated. In changing what precedes and what follows, the strategy is to look at new combinations of contexts such as "after a nasal and before a vowel" or ("asparagus, astronomy, askew") "before a stressed vowel and after s".

What emerges from looking at different phonologically-defined contexts is that aspiration appears on a very restricted context: at the very beginning of a stressed syllable, or at the very beginning of a word ("tomorrow, catastrophe, potato", where the first syllable is not stressed).

• Unreleased plosives normally result in death! Dec 5, 2022 at 7:48
• I've added the /st/ exception explicitly at the end. I will add that afaict, [ʈ] is quite old-fashioned these days, with [tʃ] being much more common in modern Standard Southern British (merging with /tʃ/), and that the glottal, tap, and unaspirated phones are frequently in free variation in Standard Southern British in many positions Dec 5, 2022 at 10:13
• @Tristan It was more meticulously written than you give it credit for!!! Notice the precise phrasing at the very beginning of a syllable. Post-edit, it gives the false impression that if the /t/ initiates the onset but is preceded by an /s/ in the coda of the preceding syllable, that there is no aspiration. [If one did want to be a stickler, one could add that the period of VOT after an initial /t/ is not considered 'aspiration' if the following segment is an approximant, where it is normally described merely as 'devoicing' - which is of course what aspiration basically is!] Dec 5, 2022 at 11:59
• You give tomorrow as an example where the word-initial /t/ will be aspirated. However, interestingly, tomorrow is an exceptional word where the initial /t/ can be flapped after a vowel! Dec 5, 2022 at 13:47
• @JanusBahsJacquet Tristan The true /tʃ/ is palatoalveilar whereas the /tr/ affricate is properly postalveolar. We’re only talking a few milimeters , but if you listen you’ll hear that (although voiceless) the former is appreciably higher pitch than the latter! Dec 6, 2022 at 12:59