“Button” vs. “Butter”

Apropos of a recent conversation in the comments, it’s worth noting that Americans generally pronounce /t/ in words like “button” and “Manhattan” in a different manner than one might expect.

To take one contrasting example, Americans pronounce the word “butter” with an alveolar tap (bʌɾɹ̩ or “budder”), while folks like myself pronounce the /t/ in “button” with a glottal stop (bʌʔn̩ or “buh’n”). In other words, American speech exhibits an exception when it comes to /t/ when it occurs before a syllabic /n/.

In fact, I’d say the glottal stop (or at the very least glottal release–bʌtʔn̩) is the unmarked American pronunciation for such words [Ed-and/or via a nasal release; see comments]. Why is this? As with a lot of situations of exceptional pronunciations, ease of articulation is partially the culprit.

In the case of the glottal stop, we start with something of a glottal-reinforced /t/. Because /t/ and /n/ involve the tongue being in the same position (the alveolar ridge), the only way we really know there is a /t/ is the sound of the glottis quickly closing then opening in a transition from /ʌ/ to /t/ to /n/. This ends up rendering the /t/ itself somewhat redundant, so many Americans simply hold off on moving their tongue into position until it’s time to make the /n/ sound.*

If you didn’t follow that unwiedly description, don’t worry; it’s besides the point. The more pertinent question is why we don’t use the alveolar tap here; that is, why don’t Americans pronounce “button” as “buddin?”

In fact, it seems to me that some accents that use the alveolar tap for /t/ actually do use it in “button” as well. I once had an Australian coworker from Brisbane who very clearly pronounced this word “buddin’.” (Although I should preface this observation once again by say that given the relative rarity of “button” in speech, I would need to hear many more Australians say it to come any conclusions.) It’s not entirely clear to me why many Americans have not gone this same route.

What’s also interesting here is that it suggests the neutralization of /t/ and /d/ in between vowels (or before syllabic consonants) is not entirely complete. That is to say, we Americans still do make some kind of distinction between /t/ and /d/, even if it’s mostly just in our heads.

*This is really a fairly common thing in English (and other languages). Similarly, we often drop the actual /n/ in the word “went,” leaving only a nasal consonant (wɛ̃t); and people will often drop the actual coronal movement in words like “belt,” leaving only a velar approximant (bɛɰt), even those who don’t normally have l-vocalization as a feature of their accent. 

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to “Button” vs. “Butter”

  1. Nick says:

    Hmm…I don’t agree that a glottal stop is the “unmarked” pronunciation in a word like button in American English. I guess if something gets repeated often enough, everyone will start to think it’s a fact. But “whatevs”, as the kids say.

    • @Nick,

      The glottal stop itself is not particularly remarkable here; it’s an allophone that makes a lot of sense in this environment. What’s more interesting is that Americans don’t neutralize /t/ and /d/ in “button” and “buddin’” the way they neutralize them in “butter” and “budder.”

      But to offer an example, here is a link to a a video about a recent White House initiative called “The Blue Button.” Multiple Americans say the word “button” throughout, and every single one uses either a glottal stop or at the very least a glottal-reinforced /t/ (“reinforcement” isn’t really correct, exactly, but I’m not sure how to describe a /t/ with only a glottal release).

      • dw says:

        I hear the woman using a glottal stop, and the two different men in the clip both using alveolar stop with nasal release.

    • Nick says:

      Thanks for the clip. It sounds to me like they all use a [t] with nasal release, i.e., [tⁿ], which is what I usually have there AFAICT. This is the voiceless version of what I usually have for the dd in the word hidden.

      • [Comment deleted by commenter/editor; embarrassingly hasty question-begging.]

        • dw says:

          Why are they mutually exclusive???

          In a glottal stop followed by [n], the breath flow is completely stopped at the glottis (vocal folds/cords). When this stoppage is released, the tongue is blocking at the alveolar ridge, and the velum is raised, for an [n]. (It is possible, but not required, that the [n] configuration may be held throughout the glottal stop, in anticipation).

          In an alveolar stop with nasal release, there is no blockage at the glottis. The air flow instead reaches all the way up to the alveolar position, just as in any alveolar stop.

          In a normal alveolar stop (with alveolar release), the airflow is released by the tongue moving down, away from the alveolar ridge. However, with nasal release, the tongue stays in place, and the release is instead made by the velum (soft palate) being raised in order to redirect the airflow into the nose. The tongue remains still, since it’s already in position for the [n].

        • dw says:

          Except, of course, that the velum is lowered, not raised. I haven’t fully woken up yet ;)

        • @dw,

          Man, I really need to not comment early in the morning/late at night as well. I think this morning I still thought of the glottal stop in “button” as such a foregone conclusion that I was basically assuming that there has to be a glottal closure there. I’m probably of this mindset because it’s so frequently repeated as fact, even by linguists; Ladefoged (no slouch) states that glottal stop in “button” is “replaced by a glottal stop in most varieties of both American and British English.”

          I think I’m probably thinking of a very specific type of release here, which is what Wells refers to as the “inaudible nasal release” (he discussed it a few years back). Basically, this involves closing the glottis after /t/, lowering the velum, then “releasing the glottal closure.” In this sense, nasal releases and glottal stops are not mutually exclusive, but I admit that this probably should be classified as something different entirely.

          Anywho, the INR is more typical (probably) in the UK, but it’s also likely typical of my own region of the US (Western New England); in other words, I may be guilty of a bit of regional bias here!

      • dw says:

        @Ben TS:

        But Wells’s discussion is about /t/ before non-syllabic /n/. The example he gives is “at noon”. I agree that in context, some degree of glottal closure/reinforcement would be expected nowadays even in RP-ish accents like mine.

        He isn’t talking about words like “button”.

        • I’m unclear, though, as to why the sequence he describes (primary articulation -> glottal closure -> nasal release -> glottal release) wouldn’t also be plausible for syllabic nasals. My confusion largely stems from being most familiar with [bʌʔn̩] on a day-to-day basis, so rightly or wrongly, I presumed that one of the more common American variants would be a similar pronunciation but with the alveolar closure timed earlier: [bʌtʔn̩]. Then again, I’m primarily used to “nasal release” in the context of non-syllabic /n/ and /m/, so I probably have a hard time hearing the difference with syllabics.

        • dw says:

          I presumed that one of the more common American variants would be a similar pronunciation but with the alveolar closure timed earlier: [bʌtʔn̩].

          You’re thinking of an unreleased [t] followed by (perhaps covered by) a released [ʔ] ?

          Seems a plausible articulation, although I think it might be hard to distinguish from the plain glottal [bʌʔn̩] . It might be more likely across a word boundary. e.g “but another” [bʌt̚ʔnʌðɻ], where the /n/ could be non-syllabic.

  2. dw says:

    A possible explanation for this is that the “flapping” rule in AmE applies only to medial [t] when it would otherwise have alveolar release.

    Hence, in “butter”, we have underlying

    1. /ˈbʌtər/
    becoming first
    2. [ˈbʌtɻ̩]
    and then, via flapping
    3. [ˈbʌɾɻ̩]

    But in “button”, we have underlying

    1. /ˈbʌtən/
    becoming
    2. [ˈbvtⁿn̩]
    which is immune to flapping because of the nasal release. However, because of the auditory closeness between the alveolar with nasal release, and the glottal stop (see previous comments for evidence of this!), this is then vulnerable to becoming

    3. [ˈbvʔn̩]

    The interesting question, then, is what happens to an alveolar with lateral release. Does “battle” become

    (a) [ˈbæʔl̩]

    (b) [ˈbæɾl̩]

    or my good old RP

    (c) [ˈbætˡl̩]

    or something else?

    • Good question! I believe “battle” would be (b) for the vast majority of American speakers. So it is indeed odd that nasal release remains as such while lateral release does not. Oddly, though, I have heard glottal-t and/or lateral release with derivatives like “settler,” in which case the syllable /l/ is elided: [sɛʔlɚ].

    • Ellen K. says:

      As I noted below, for me, the tip of the tongue does not move after the t/d in battle. Doesn’t that mean it can’t be a flap? Or do I have an odd pronunciation?

      • dw says:

        Based on your description, you have (as I do) an alveolar stop with lateral release in “battle”: full IPA would be [ˈbætˡl̩]

        The tongue tip does not move after the /t/, but one or both sides of the tongue release from the roof of the mouth to allow lateral airflow for the /l/.

  3. Ellen K. says:

    I’m rather clueless about the glottal thing. I tend to think of it as an unreleased t (like in bat in isolation or at the end of an utterance), followed by the n, without moving the tongue.

    Comparing “button the” to “bud in the”, though, seems like the difference (or the most salient one) would have to be a glottal stop.

    “Battle” likewise has the tip of the tongue staying in position after the t (though with tongue movement elsewhere). Definitely voiced, though.

  4. m.m. says:

    The more pertinent question is why we don’t use the alveolar tap here; that is, why don’t Americans pronounce “button” as “buddin?”

    In relation to the glottal version of button being [reletively] unmarked, a tapped version is fairly marked to me, which calls this statement into question, cause there have been a handful of times when speakers used a tap and my ear perked up at the phonetic difference

    infact, im pretty sure ive done it a few times D:

    • @m.m.,

      “Americans” (unmodified) is perhaps the wrong choice of words there. I should probably clarify that I actually have heard Americans do this as well, but I’ve assumed it to be regional or an odd idiolectal quirk (I vaguely recall someone suggesting this was a Southernism, but don’t quote me on that).

      I also wouldn’t rule out that this pronunciation occasionally appears even for those who don’t do this consistently, especially in rapid speech. But it would definitely perk up most American ears.

      • Peter S. says:

        If you look on forvo.com, you’ll find that lots of Americans use a flap in “button” and similar words (I think it was around a third of them, from my very unscientific sample). I have no idea whether this is regional.

  5. Gonfal says:

    “Button the” is a weird one – I am pretty sure I use a full glottal stop and release for that one. The t/n thing also seems to go for t/l for me too.

    Otherwise, your conclusion about “button” was basically what I came to.

    I need to offer an anecdote – I was at a friend’s house, and this guy who is also from Ontario was there, and he pronounced every last t, such as”butter” rather than “budder” at one point, pronounced the t in “eaten”. I’m certain that he has Asperger’s, and I’ve heard over-precise pronunciations from people with Asperger’s before. He also didn’t reduce a single vowel – “to”, “your”, and “for”, actually sounded as they theoretically do, rather than “tuh”, “yer”, and “fer”, like everyone else around here. It was striking.

    • Sam says:

      Should I be worried about my brother? We both grew up in the same town on the East Coast, but for some reason he pronounces the “T” in “mountain” and “Clinton” (which I may have teased him about in the past). I couldn’t see a reason for it, other than maybe influence from a friend or teacher at school who spoke ESL – should I be concerned that he’s on the spectrum?

  6. Tom says:

    Just a note on your footnote involving “went”: I’m certain that I and many others simply drop the “t” altogether in phrases like “went out to run errands,” i.e., when the word following “went” begins with a vowel. Is there a distinction there?

    • We would drop the /n/ more typically in phrases like “that’s where he went,” i.e. when “went” is at the end of a phrase or more emphasized. I would drop the /t/ in “went out to run errands” as well.

  7. Akito says:

    If [ˈbæʔl̩] is uncommon, how about if another syllable is added–”battling”? [ˈnæʔl̩i, ˈnæʔəli] for “Natalie” seems common to my nonnative ear, or am I hearing something regional?

    • Peter S. says:

      I think [ˈbæʔlɪŋ] and [ˈnæʔli] (two syllables) are normal, but not [ˈbæʔəlɪŋ] and [ˈnæʔəli] (three syllables). When you stick the schwa between the glottal stop and the [l], the ‘t’ reverts to a flap, at least for me.

  8. Jan says:

    This is true of older Americans (swallowing the /t/ and using a glottal release to show that SOMETHING is there on the way to /n/). Younger Americans (under 40?) are using alveolar tap and inserting a neutral vowel afterwards. Quite distinct from older Americans. Spreading like wildfire, it is!

  9. NB says:

    The AmE pronunciation of ‘butter’ is consistent with Northern Irish usage, which has obvious influences over AmE. For example, my own family name of ‘Beatty’ is pronounced differently on either side of the Irish Sea.

  10. xrf says:

    (Although I should preface this observation once again by say[ing] that given the relative rarity of “button” in speech, I would need to hear many more Australians say it to come any conclusions.)

    As an Australian (from Melbourne) I can say that ‘buddon’ is common amongst young speakers here.

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