Ask Language Log: Trend in the pronunciation of Clinton?

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From David Russinoff:

I wonder if you've done, or are aware of, any research relevant to the following observation. In the articulation of a "d" or "t" followed by a schwa, the tongue may or may not leave the alveolar ridge.  (I just did some cursory research on parts of the mouth and hope I got that right.)  My (highly unscientific) observation over recent years is that, at least in the pronunciation of certain words, such as "student", removal of the tongue is increasingly common.  In fact, this trend is so apparent to me that I find it remarkable that most people don't seem to have noticed it.  I also have an impression that the trend is especially pronounced (unfortunate choice of words) among younger speakers, but my attempt to support this observation by listening to various pronunciations of "Clinton" over the past four nights failed miserably.

At first I thought David was asking about the phenomenon of "flapping" and "voicing" of /t/ when it's not in the onset of a stressed syllable — as in city, charityat all. The same weakening of the tongue gesture occurs with /d/ and /n/, as in ladder, canny, parody. And in all cases, the intervocalic consonant can weaken further to become an approximant, or can even disappear completely, which is what I thought he meant by "removal of the tongue".

But his choice of  examples indicates that he's interested in what happens to /t/ (and /d/) in words like button, kitten, lighten (or Clinton or student). In such words, many (most?) American English speakers pronounce the second syllable with a glottal release into a syllabic nasal, as in this pronunciation of button from the online MW dictionary:

In pronunciations of this type, the tongue cleaves to the roof of the month (at the alveolar ridge just behind the teeth) at the end of the first syllable, and stays right there through the end of the word — there's no vowel at all in the second syllable. An IPA rendition of that sequence might be [tʔn̩], though IPA is not a very good mechanism for the description of such phenomena.

Such words have alternative pronunciations where the speaker releases the /t/ (or /d/) closure into a brief reduced vowel ("schwa") before bringing the tongue back up to the alveolar ridge for the final /n/ — in IPA terms, something like [tən] or [tɪn]. I think this is probably what David means by "removal of the tongue".

My not-very-well-informed guess would have been that the choice between the [n̩] (syllabic nasal) and  [ən] (schwa+nasal) alternatives is an example of stable geographic and social variation, rather than a sound change in progress. But I don't know of any research on this issue — perhaps someone in the comments can point us to relevant work.

[Note that speakers might also end the first syllable of words like button or Clinton with a glottal stop rather than a glottalized /t/ or /d/, again with a choice of releasing the glottal stop into a syllabic nasal or into a schwa + nasal sequence.]

With respect to the question that I first thought David was asking, about further weakening (or as linguists say, "lenition" or "reduction") of flapped /t/ and /d/ to the point where there's no closure at all, or even no discernible tongue gesture at all — that's definitely a thing. See e.g. Natasha Warner, Amy Fountain, and Benjamin Tucker, "Cues to perception of reduced flaps", JASA 2009:

Natural, spontaneous speech (and even quite careful speech) often shows extreme reduction in many speech segments, even resulting in apparent deletion of consonants. Where the flap ([ɾ]) allophone of /t/ and /d/ is expected in American English, one frequently sees an approximant-like or even vocalic pattern, rather than a clear flap. Still, the /t/ or /d/ is usually perceived, suggesting the acoustic characteristics of a reduced flap are sufficient for perception of a consonant. This paper identifies several acoustic characteristics of reduced flaps based on previous acoustic research (size of intensity dip, consonant duration, and F4 valley) and presents phonetic identification data for continua that manipulate these acoustic characteristics of reduction. The results indicate that the most obvious types of acoustic variability seen in natural flaps do affect listeners’ percept of a consonant, but not sufficiently to completely account for the percept. Listeners are affected by the acoustic characteristics of consonant reduction, but they are also very skilled at evaluating variability along the acoustic dimensions that realize reduction.

Or Natasha Warner and Benjamin Tucker, "Phonetic variability of stops and flaps in spontaneous and careful speech", JASA 2011:

Variability is perhaps the most notable characteristic of speech, and it is particularly noticeable in spontaneous conversational speech. The current research examines how speakers realize the American English stops /p, k, b, g/ and flaps (ɾ from /t, d/), in casual conversation and in careful speech. Target consonants appear after stressed syllables (e.g., “lobby”) or between unstressed syllables (e.g., “humanity”), in one of six segmental/word-boundary environments. This work documents the degree and types of variability listeners encounter and must parse. Findings show greater reduction in connected and spontaneous speech, greater reduction in high frequency phrases (but not within high frequency words), and greater reduction between unstressed syllables than after a stress. Although highly reduced productions of stops and flaps occur often, with approximant-like tokens even in careful speech, reduction does not lead to a large amount of overlap between phonological categories. Approximant-like realizations of expected stops and flaps in some conditions constitute the majority of tokens. This shows that reduced speech is something that listeners encounter, and must perceive, in a large proportion of the speech they hear.

Again, it's not clear whether this is stable variation or a sound change in progress. There's no doubt that such things have been going on for a while — consider e.g. the traditional pronunciation of Baltimore as "Balmer" or Philadelphia as "Fluffya".

It's normal for phenomena originally limited to casual registers to gradually diffuse into more formal speech and writing, over time periods measured in decades or even centuries.  For some examples, see last year's series of posts on the secular trend in definiteness in English, e.g. "Decreasing definiteness", 1/8/2015; "Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1", 1/9/2015; "Why definiteness is decreasing, part 2", 1/10/2015. But I don't know of any attempts to investigate changes over time in American English consonant reduction in general, or flap reduction in particular. There are some datasets in which these phenomena could in principle be checked, such as the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus and the Studs Terkel Archive. Maybe the StoryCorps data will someday be opened to researchers. So in a few years, we'll know a lot more about such things than we do now.



  1. Bob Ladd said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    When Bill Clinton was in the US presidential news in 1992, I remember some British TV commentator mentioning the fact that Americans pronounced his name with a glottal stop, which is mostly found only in stigmatised urban speech in Britain. (I don't remember whether the commentator actually used the term 'glottal stop' or not, but he was clearly struck by the fact that the pronunciation under discussion is stigmatised in British English and not in North American.) At the very least, this anecdote suggests that Mark is right to file this under 'stable variation' rather than 'sound change in progress'.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    One speaker at the DNC, Jennifer Pierotti, very carefully pronounced it "Clinn-tinn." Maybe this was a matter of formality, I dunno—her pronunciation was very careful in general. Anyway, here's a link.

  3. Scott said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    It's purely anecdote, but this year I have noticed a much higher incidence of /t/ as opposed to syllabic nasal. Listen to the 538 Elections Podcast for an example where every regular contributor distinctly pronounces the /t/. I say the syllabic nasal, and it feels to me everybody* used to, but now, at least in the media, people say /t/.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    Jennifer Pierotti Lim, sorry.

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    John Wells has written several times over the years about related subjects on the Phonetic Blog. For example, see here:

    Although we British say sentence as ˈsentəns, Americans have different rules about syllabic consonant formation, ənn. (Because of font and browser bugs in rendering the syllabicity mark, I won’t place it under the n here.) Americans typically use a syllabic n after the t in sentence. So the t is immediately followed by a nasal, which triggers tʔ (the t becomes glottal). You can get ˈsentəns in very careful speech, but mostly Americans say ˈsenʔns. Since the t is pronounced as a glottal stop, it is not voiced. (There can also be an epenthetic t between the last two segments, giving ˈsenʔnts. And the vowel can coalesce with the nasal, so that we end up with something like ˈsẽʔnts.)
    We get the same thing in the American pronunciation of words such as accountant əˈkaʊnʔnt, mountain ˈmaʊnʔn, Clinton ˈklɪnʔn.

    There is a further discussion about syllabic consonants versus schwa-consonant here.

    In the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, Wells gives ˈklɪnt ən as the British pronunciation and ˈklɪnt ᵊn as the American pronunciation, using a superscript schwa in the latter case to show that it is usually pronounced with a syllabic nasal (the tʔ is not explicitly transcribed in the dictionary).

  6. Boursin said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    As a native Finnish speaker fluent in BrE, I can tell you that already during Bill Clinton's presidency, I was frequently struck by the glottal stop when I heard AmE speakers say the name. I sometimes even ended up parodying it to myself involuntarily when watching the news. (Sorry.)

  7. Ken Miner said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 2:53 pm

    I began to notice the [ǝn]/[ɪn] phenomenon in the 50s, when my then best friend, from Long Island, consistently pronounced ‘button’ [ˈbʌɾǝn]. Nowadays ‘didn’t’ as [ˈdɪɾɛnt] and so on I hear everywhere. Apparently not regional, but always from young people, I believe, so it may well be a sound change in progress (it may not stick, of course). The thing to look for is consistency across the vocabulary: are there speakers, for example, who say [ˈklɪntǝn] but [ˈdɪɾɛnt]?

  8. Ken Miner said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    Sorry; I meant [ˈklɪntǝn] or [ˈklɪntʔn]

  9. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    My pronunciation of Kensington [keŋzŋ̩tn̩] has, at least once, been mistaken for Kingston.

    Not American, so not exactly on topic, but I'm just throwing that out there.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    I think, in casual speech, I have [ˈklɪntʔn] or maybe even [ˈklɪnʔn]. In more careful speech, it would be [ˈklɪntǝn]. SoAmE speaker.

  11. Steven Hartman Keiser said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    It was probably about 5 years ago that I first noticed this vowel variant in Midwestern speakers 20 years and younger (i.e., my own children), in words like "important" and "button".
    The vowel sounds to me a bit closer to [ɪ] than [ə].

  12. Steven Hartman Keiser said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    I should add that there is no [t] in these words. The consonant remains a glottal stop.
    So "button" is realized as [bʌʔɪn].
    And "important" as [ɪmpɔɹʔɪnt], or maybe something close to [ɪmpɔɹʔɪ̃ʔ].

  13. Bloix said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    As an American who works with English clients, I second Jongseong Park's comment. I would say that Clin'-in is standard American pronunciation and always has been (at least as far as I can recall) and that Clin-ton is standard British English. This is one of the many differences that most people don't notice and can't replicate, but that make Americans sound sloppy to Brits and make Brits sound prissy to Americans.

  14. Akito said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    [-tn̩] and [-tɪn] seem to be well-established AmE and BrE variants, respectively, for Latin.

    My former boss from Texas used to say [ɪmˈpʰɔːɾənt] for important, with a "flap t + schwa + n".

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 5:10 am

    @ Bob Ladd –

    The glottal stop may be stigmatised in BrE, but I think pretty much every speaker now has it, including royalty.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 6:33 am

    @Akito: [-tn̩] and [-tɪn] seem to be well-established AmE and BrE variants, respectively, for Latin.

    "Latin" is a different case, where the difference is in the underlying vowel of the second consonant—/ɪ/ for BrE (at least in RP) and /ǝ/ for AmE. In the latter case, because the /ǝn/ following a stressed vowel and /t/ is usually realized as a syllabic consonant, you have [ˈlætn̩]. This type of difference where the underlying vowel varies between /ɪ/ in BrE and /ǝ/ (or /ᵻ/ to mark that it can be either [ǝ] or [ɪ]) in AmE is quite common, in words like "Kevin" which is [ˈkɛvɪn] in BrE and [ˈkɛvn̩] in AmE, or even in cases where the variable vowel is not followed by /n/, as in "Alice" which is [ˈælɪs] in BrE and [ˈælǝs] in AmE.

    If the underlying vowel is /ǝ/ (or zero), BrE has no trouble using a syllabic consonant in words like "flatten" [ˈflætn̩]. Note however that the /t/ here need not turn into [ʔ] for a syllabic nasal to follow, in either BrE (where the glottal stop pronunciation is still stigmatized if increasingly common) or AmE (where the glottal stop pronunciation wouldn't be marked).

    For "Clinton", the underlying vowel is /ǝ/ for both BrE and AmE. So the difference comes from the treatment of /t/, which readily turns to [ʔ] in this environment in AmE.

  17. Akito said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    @Jongseong Park: Thank you for explaining how the /-tən/-tɪn/ AmE/BrE difference underlies the [-tn̩ or -ʔn̩/-tɪn] difference in Latin. (Sorry the syllabic diacritic doesn't show correctly on some browsers.)

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    I am not sure that the references to BrE in the comments apply to Londoners. See the Wikipedia article on T-glottalization.

  19. H Stephen Straight said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 9:30 am

    For many (most) speakers, isn't the release into the syllabic [n] uvular rather than glottal?

  20. Trevor Clinton said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    When I say Clinton not part of a full name I say /cLIn?n./
    But when part of a full name I say /cLIntn./ exempt when I say my name
    I say /trevor cLIntIn/ (that's Trev-Or with stress on the first syllable but the second syllable still pronounced unweakened)

    Ps: sorry for the lack of IPA, typed on my iPhone

  21. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

    @Jongseong Park: The reason why Clinton and similar items don't have a syllabic nasal in General British is alluded to in the Wells post you quote above: GenBr doesn't seem to allow /tən/ or /dən/ to produce a syllabic /n/ if the /t~d/ is preceded by another /n/. Therefore no syllabic /n/ in London, Clinton, mountain etc. As a result, the /t/ is post-consonantal/pre-vocalic which strongly disfavours glottalization. (In all normal syllabification approaches, it would also be syllable-initial which would disfavour glottalization even more; but of course in John Wells's own system it's syllable-final…) AmE doesn't seem to have this constraint.

    With regard to glottalization being stigmatized in GenBr: This is strongly context-dependent. You might perhaps argue it's stigmatized in e.g. Britain or before dark /l/ or word-internally between vowels in careful General British. But in most context it's totally OK. Check out Prince William on YouTube ;)

  22. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 4:53 pm

    Oh, and on the main topic: "retaining" the schwa (or re-introducing it?) is certainly a thing in GenBr, to the extent of being included as a "recent trend" in Gimson's pronunciation of English which is a Bible of sorts for GenBr pronunciation:

    [ə] plus a non-syllabic consonant is used where previously a syllabic consonant has been the norm* (and where the use of the [ə] was considered babylike), e.g. garden [gɑːdən], bitten [bɪtən], middle [mɪdəl], bottle [bɒtəl]. (p. 85 in the 8th edition, 2014)

    (*) What a peculiar choice of tense isn't it.

  23. Jongseong Park said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 3:46 am

    @Jarek, thanks for elaborating on this, and I remember seeing this trend of retaining/re-introducing the schwa in British English being remarked upon (often in disapproving manner by those who think it sounds 'childish').

    I should have clarified that my comment about the glottal stop being stigmatized in British English was meant to apply narrowly to cases like "flatten". That could have been worded better. And stigmatized may no longer be the right word for it, since it is becoming common enough to pass unnoticed. "Use of [ʔ] to replace /t/ … before syllabic [n̩] … was until recently stigmatized as non-RP" according to Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, p. 180, but is "now acceptable in London Regional RP."

    One thing I wasn't sure of was whether American English allowed /tən/ or /dən/ to be pronounced with a syllabic nasal following /n/ while preserving /t/ or /d/ as alveolar stops. I am inclined to say no, that the syllabic nasal pronunciation for /tən/ is possible in American English only because of the glottal stop allophone. But I would love to hear what experts would have to say about this.

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