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There are a plethora of words in the English language in which the phonemes /t/ and /d/ appear between two vowels, whether they be in adjacent syllables in the same word or in different words as a result of linking. There seems to be quite a bit of variance in the realizations of /t/ and /d/ in these positions throughout the English-speaking world, with many relevant phonetic phenomena, sound changes, and allophonic realizations. These include tapping/flapping, glottaling, spirantization, affrication, and probably many others.

In North America, the sounds represented by ⟨t⟩ and ⟨d⟩ are often realized as an alveolar tap, [ɾ], when they appear between vowels (tapping). This also occurs in some other regions from time to time. In the United Kingdom, especially in London and other cities in Southeastern England, intervocalic /t/ is very often realized as a glottal stop, [ʔ] (glottaling). In other accents of the British Isles, such as some Irish, Liverpool, and historical RP accents, the fortis coronal stop may not be fully occluded between vowels and can be realized as a constricted fricative like [s] (spirantization). Finally, some people produce an affricated /t/ or /d/ which is held like an occlusive, then released like a fricative (affrication).

This seems like quite a mess of complexity to me. I don't think any consonants other than the coronal plosives /t/ and /d/ (especially the former) are likely to be produced with such a range of disparate pronunciations in intervocalic positions. This implies to me that for some reason, these phonemes in these environments are somehow unstable and liable to quicker sound changes in English than other phonemes. I am wondering why this is the case. I also wonder if other languages show similar variance in the realization of their intervocalic coronal sounds.

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  • Why not give some concrete examples like: wanted. "In North America, the sounds represented by ⟨t⟩ and ⟨d⟩ are often realized as an alveolar tap, [ɾ], when they appear between vowels (tapping)." Do you think "wanted" is not generally pronounced the same way in varieties of standard English? Of course, in Cockney or Brooklynese, it's different.
    – Lambie
    Jan 31, 2023 at 22:07
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    @Lambie Given that the question is asking about intervocalic coronal stops, ‘wanted’ is explicitly not an example. But no, despite not being exactly what the question is about, ‘wanted’ is not generally pronounced the same way in varieties of standard English either. Jan 31, 2023 at 23:29
  • @ Janus Bahs Jacquet waited, then. And yes, in standard British and American English, wanted is pronounced the same way, in terms of the ted bit.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1, 2023 at 0:27

1 Answer 1

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Primarily because the tip of the tongue can move quickly. The underlying "cause" of the change is that in that prosodic position, things move faster. That means that ideally, stops will be shorter. However, it's really hard to abbreviate the time for /tʃ, ts/, and kinda hard for /p/ and /k/. Some languages do allow such shortening, and then you may get a very short "p" or "k" that doesn't have complete closure, and often sounds like a voiced fricative. Lingual stops /t,d/ are very susceptible to such shortening since the tongue tip can whip out and back pretty quickly. The appearance of [ʔ] adds one other feature, namely glottal constriction which also exists in [hɪˀt̚], which is then phonologized.

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    “Some languages do allow such shortening, and then you may get a very short "p" or "k" that doesn't have complete closure” — Worth noting that ‘some languages’ here includes English. Not so much with /p/, perhaps, but realisations of /k/ without full closure are exceedingly common. Jan 31, 2023 at 23:31
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    many featural theories would say that the change [t] > [ʔ] actually removes a feature, as they view [t] as [+stop][+coronal] whereas [ʔ] is simply [+stop]. If we insist on adding glottal closure as an explicit feature we still haven't added any features overall, just replaced [+coronal] with [+glottal closure]
    – Tristan
    Feb 1, 2023 at 10:02
  • Note also (I was just reminded this morning) that English final nasal + voiced stop loss only applied to labials (numb, comb, limb) and velars (sing, singer, hang). I was wondering what exempted coronals.
    – jlawler
    Feb 1, 2023 at 18:35

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