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 Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-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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