61: The American /t/ as a quick /d/ — Pronuncian: American English Pronunciation (2023)

Why does 'water' sound like 'wadder'?


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 61st episode.

Ah, it feels good to be finished with version 1 of Rhythm and Intonation. It feels nice that everything is slowly getting back to normal around Seattle Learning Academy.

I'm really excited about today's show about the t sound being replaced by a d sound by native speakers in the United States. I've been waiting and waiting to talk about the strange things the t sound does, but it was pretty far down the list of episodes I thought were important. I'm deciding to do it now because there have been two recent forum posts about this topic, and both of the topics were started by Brazilians. However, this issue is important for lots of languages, not just Portuguese. This issue was first brought to my attention when I was teaching a corporate class earlier this year and two Spanish speakers came up to me on a break and asked my why they were both hearing an r sound in the middle of the word water. "An r sound?" I asked. "Yes," they answered. "In the middle of the word?" "Yes," they answered. This seemed very strange to me, so I asked them what their native language was, and they both said it was Spanish. I asked them to say the word, which they both pronounced "water." I asked them if they here an r sound when they say the word, and they both said, "no". Then I pronounced the word "water" two different acceptable ways, and asked them which way they heard an r sound. I had my answer as to why they were hearing an r sound in the middle of the word water, and it all has to do with what linguists call an alveolar tap, and what I call a "quick d sound".

If you've been listening to these podcasts for a while, and have heard the podcasts about the r sound, I warned you all of tapping your r's. (tapped r sound). That tapped r sound is the same sound Americans make when we substitute a quick d sound for the t sound, and is a common sound in both Spanish and Portuguese, as well as numerous other languages. Since most non-native speakers don't substitute the quick d sound for the t sound, your r sound and t sound are perceived as very different sounds, which they are. Now, that was a long story about why Spanish and Portuguese speakers are hearing an r sound when they think they should be hearing a t sound or a d sound. Today I want to teach you about when Americans use a quick d sound in place of a t sound. And I have a forum post about the r issue that I hope you'll go to and tell me if you do or don't hear an r sound when I say a quick d sound. I'm still curious about it, and I just think it's pretty neat.

So, when do Americans substitute a quick d sound for the t sound. This is the beginning of some somewhat complicated formulas I'm going to give you. The quick d sound isn't the only thing we say instead of the t sound, we have two other options as well, which I'm going to get to in the next few weeks.

For today, when do Americans substitute a quick d sound for a t sound?

Americans substitute a d sound for a t sound (are you ready?) when the t sound follows a vowel or an r sound, and comes before a vowel, r sound, schwa+r, or l sound. Think about it like this, vowels, r's and l's will mess up a t sound. Here, I'll repeat the rule again. Americans substitute a d sound for a t sound when the t sound follows a vowel or an r sound, and comes before a vowel, r sound, schwa+r, or l sound.

Let's look at our example of the word water. The t in the middle of that word is following an aw sound, and comes before a schwa+r, so American will substitute a quick d sound for the t sound. I'll say the word with a proper t sound, then with a quick d sound.

water (t)
water (d)

I'll say them both again.

proper t sound: water
quick d sound: water

Notice that I said a "proper t sound". The dictionary shows a t sound for this word, and it is absolutely okay to continue to say a t sound in that word. However, it is not the way most native-English speaking Americans will say it. In fact, Americans who always say a proper t sound will sound a little odd to other native speakers. Only when the word is being stressed for emphasis, is it more likely that the t sound will be said properly.

Listen to a few more words that are generally pronounced with a quick d sound in place of a t sound.


Here's another thing about this rule. It isn't just when the t is in the middle of a word that it can change to a d sound. Marcelo, when he first mentioned the r sound issue in the forums, gave three great examples of the same thing happening when the t is the last sound of a word. He gave the examples: "it_is" "without_it", and "that_again". All of those t's fall between vowels because the next word in the examples begins with a vowel sound. This will cause the t sound to shift to a quick d sound, even when it spans across words.

I have students in Seattle who have lived here from as little as a few weeks to as long as many decades. I will mention that this is a subtle aspect of English that seems like people who live here longer do pick up intuitively. But everyone mentions that the quick d sound substitution caused trouble with listening comprehension when they first moved here. During these podcasts, I try to not speak in an overly formal fashion because I want you to hear more natural speech, and I intentionally say the t sound as the majority of other speakers do.

Unfortunately, every rule of English has an exception, and the t as d rule has one as well. If the t is the first sound of a stressed syllable, it will remain a t sound. I've seen a lot of pronunciation material that says that a double t in the middle of a word will be pronounced as a d sound. Well, it isn't true if the double t begins a stressed syllable. An example it the word attach. The stressed syllable is the "tach" part of the word, so the t sound stays as a t sound, attach. I wouldn't say addach. Can you hear the difference? Attach, addach.

Here are some more words that seem as if they may have the t pronounced as a quick d sound, but don't, because the t is the first sound of a stressed syllable. Listen carefully to hear the t sound in the following words.


Oh, this episode had a lot of explanations and a lot of rules. Here is the rule again for when the letter t will get pronounced as a quick d sound: Americans substitute a d sound for a t sound when the t sound follows a vowel or an r sound, and comes before a vowel, r sound, schwa+r, or l sound.

Let's practice. Repeat these words after me. All of them have the t replaced by a quick d sound.


Now, please go to the forums and let me know what language you speak, and tell me if you hear an r sound in these words or not. A lot of languages have an alveolar tap, and so I wonder how many of you hear it as an r sound.

This information is available in both my first and second book, since it happens within words, as well as with linked words. Your purchase of either of those books supports production of this podcast, and is greatly appreciated. Subscribers also have additional listening practice for this and the other t sound substitutions, which I will get to in the coming weeks.

Next week will hopefully be the return of the video podcasts! Yay! Like I said, I'm happy the book is finished, and I can get back to my regular schedule again.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.


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