Monday, April 17, 2006

De Lee, Ted

I've been thinking a lot (too much) lately about /t/s in English. I never really thought about them before, so I guess this I was overdue. Really, though, I never knew how much there was to know! I'd heard about flapping, but didn't know what all the, umm, fuss... was about. What fascinates me most though is how most Americans are completely unaware of flapping, that is, that the 't' sound before unstressed vowels really doesn't sound much like a /t/ at all, at least when uttered (or uddered) by Americans. And not just 't's, but 'd's as well. That's why 'uttered' and 'uddered' sound the same. Here are three anecdotes about this.

1) In an acting class my freshman year of high school, the teacher admonished us for "not pronouncing our 't's - there's a 't' in 'battle' - I need to hear it." So we had to say 'ba-tel' to get her off our collective case. Nevermind that that's not how you say that word in American English.

2) At a conference recently a handout for a talk included some transcribed speech, in which the word 'later' was followed by "(lader)" seemingly chastising the informant for flapping her 't's.

3) The recorded interface in my voicemail system, which generally sounds chatty and colloquial, says "This message has been De Lee, Ted," which always makes me want to say, 'My name isn't Ted.'

Frankly, I don't really care that people don't know about flapping 't's. Why should they? But it's interesting that this particular sound gets attention where others don't; I can't imagine an acting teacher telling actors to devoice the 's' in 'rose,' for instance.


Luke said...

I've also noticed (especially in sung music)that a lot of t's are getting "s" tacked on to them...hence the line "i want to talk to you" comes out as "i want tso tsalk tso you". I haven't read about this anywhere...any thoughts?

Ben said...

As a matter of fact, I do have some thoughts about that. First of all, I should point out that these 't's are before stressed vowels and are normally aspirated - that is, followed by a puff of air. From there it's not too big a stretch to 'ts' - I call this 'tsadification' after the Hebrew letter that makes the /ts/ sound, though I bet there's a technical term. I associate this in speech with two groups of people - 1) British people, especially from southern England, and 2) New Yorkers of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage. I think that in America, though, this is spreading rapidly and widely, but that's based on vague impressions, not data. I posted a while back about British and American singing pronunciations and the curious and complex relation between them.

Good observation, in any case.