Canadian and American /T/

I recently read Alice Munro‘s famous short story collection Dear Life, my interest piqued after the Canadian writer’s recent Nobel Prize win. I enjoy watching interviews with authors I’m reading, so I looked up several with Munro on YouTube. I was also, I admit, curious about the accent of someone who grew up in rural Ontario before World War II:

Like several older Canadian I’ve heard, Munro’s accent strikes me as, in some respects, less marked (from an American perspective) than that of many younger Canadians; her Canadian Vowel shift seems rather intermittent. She exhibits, however, a feature that has always struck me as being a slight if inconsistent divider between Canadian and American English: she sometimes pronounces the /t/ in words like “later” and “writer” with an aspirated plosive where many Americans would use a tapped or voiced vowel (i.e. “writer” and “rider” would sound roughly the same).*

My impression is that Canadians these days more likely to use the same consonant in “rider” as the one they use in “writer.” But I can’t say how much of a change this is; it seems to me that there used to be more Americans who used un-tapped /t/ in these words as well, and it’s likely that, conversely, tapped /t/ has been a feature in Canadian English for a long time.

So all I can really say is that, impressions aside, Munro’s idiolect (rural southwest Ontario possibly influenced by decades living in Vancouver) often features an aspirated /t/ in this environment where, say, mine does not. There are clearly a large number of allophones for intervocalic /t/ in various dialects of English; why some accents and possibly even some people use certain variants where others do not strikes me as one of the more intriguing mysteries of English phonology.

*In some parts of the Northern US, however, there is a trend away from tapped /t/ and toward the glottal stop more typical of some British accents. Hence while back in a Connecticut recently I overheard someone in a restaurant pronounce the phrase “but it wasn’t” bʌʔ ɪʔ wʌznʔ.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched 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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16 Responses to Canadian and American /T/

  1. Matt Strickland says:

    She sounds like she has a distinction between marry and Mary/merry. I’ve noticed this in Alex Trebek’s speech too. He’s also from Ontario.

  2. Martin says:

    For many Canadians, the contrast between “writer”and “rider” would be in the diphthong (the former affected by raising).

  3. Randy says:

    ‘”My impression is that Canadians these days more likely to use the same consonant in “rider” as the one they use in “writer.”’

    I concur, but mainly I just wanted to subscribe to comments for this post and I don’t seem to be able to do that without posting my own comment.

  4. Quist says:

    This comment is on your footnote, not the main topic of your post. I’ve noticed quite a bit of glottaling in Vermont [vɚˈmɑːnʔ] too FWIW.

    • Axamandros says:

      Well, glottal-replacement utterance-finally isn’t exactly rare in GA from my experience. I’m a young near-GA speaker, I replace the /t/ entirely in a word like “but” or “burnt” in isolation. It’s only remarkable when it’s unflapped intervocalically in a phrase like “but it wasn’t”, which I would pronounce as [bʌɾɪʔ wʌdnʔ].

      • Quist says:

        I don’t think so. If that were the case, it wouldn’t stick out to me when Vermonters did it.

      • Quist says:

        I should clarify: I’m not saying I don’t believe that you do it. I just don’t think it’s common in GA, otherwise I wouldn’t notice it when people did it.

        • Axamandros says:

          Well, it certainly seems /t/ is unstable in GA to me. In a word like Vermont, I’d pronounce it with a glottal stop like in your example in isolation, but before a vowel like “the state of vermont is” it’d be a nasalized flap ala [vɚmɑːɾ̃ɪz]”. I’m certainly not from Vermont, mind. And perhaps you’re right, I’m certainly not full GA; I stop /z/ before /n/ and have caught/cot merger among others. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see full glottal replacement of final /t/ continue to spread.

  5. English says:

    As a foreigner a.k.a. non-english speaker, different dialects always confuse me. When I have to speak with a native english speaker or other peoples from other countries, I would definitely use the standard dialect (with weird accent). That is the safest way to communicate with other peoples. I have some experience in misinterpreting some words spoken by a british man, for example the word ‘wain’. I thought he was talking about vein or vain, but he actually mean “rain”.

  6. pinklove says:

    She speaks better than just about any Canadian I’ve ever been around. Her CR doesn’t seem as noticeable and her language seems very precise. I’m from Guelph ( a city in southwestern Ontario) and the majority of people here unfortunately have an accent bordering on Bob and Doug Mckenzie – it’s rather terrible. I hope for the day when Canadian raising will just die out and people start speaking properly.

    • Axamandros says:

      Alas, my friend, it’s spreading. Raising of /ai/ is GA now iirc. I have trouble even producing [ai] in, say, “bite.” It’s also common in lots of regional american accents.

  7. Akito says:

    Not a native speaker, but I’m a bit surprised several people commented that her Canadian Raising is not so noticeable. To me, it stands out in her about. I’ve also noticed quite a puff of air in her wh- words like what and where.

    Near the bottom of the paragraph below the video link, you probably menat “voiced consonant”.

    • Quist says:

      I (native speaker, America) think her Canadian raising is pretty noticeable too.

    • Angus-Michel says:

      I’m a native speaker of Canadian English, and I definitely think her raising stands out. Well-spotted on the wh-, as well; that’s a feature of Canadian English that I (aged 30) don’t usually even hear from my parents and their generation (born in the ’50s).

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