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Flapping or tapping, also known as alveolar flapping, intervocalic flapping, or t-voicing, is a phonological process found in many dialects of English, especially North American English, Australian English and New Zealand English, by which the consonant phoneme /t/ or /d/ placed between vowels is pronounced as a voiced flap under certain conditions. In some cases, the effect is perceived by some listeners as the replacement of a /t/ sound with a /d/ sound; for example, the word butter pronounced with flapping may be heard as "budder". In fact, /t/ and sometimes /d/ are pronounced in such positions as an alveolar flap [ɾ], a sound produced by briefly tapping the alveolar ridge with the tongue. Also, in similar positions, the combination /nt/ may be pronounced with a nasalized flap, making winter sound similar or identical to winner.
The terms flap and tap are often used synonymously, although some authors make a distinction between them. When the distinction is made, a flap involves a rapid backward and forward movement of the tongue tip, while a tap involves an upward and downward movement. Linguists disagree on whether the sound produced in the present process is a flap or a tap, and by extension on whether it is better called flapping or tapping, while flapping has traditionally been more widely used.
Flapping is a prominent feature of North American English. Some linguists consider it obligatory for most American dialects to flap /t/ between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. In Australian, Cockney and Irish English, and to a lesser extent in Received Pronunciation, flapping is present but more occasional and restricted to /t/.
The exact conditions for flapping in North American English are unknown, although it is widely understood that it occurs in an alveolar stop, /t/ or /d/, when placed between two vowels, provided the second vowel is unstressed (as in butter, writing, wedding, loader). Across word boundaries, however, it can occur between any two vowels, provided the second vowel begins a word (as in get over [ɡɛɾˈoʊvɚ]). This extends to morphological boundaries within compound words (as in whatever [ˌwʌɾˈɛvɚ]). In addition to vowels, segments that may precede the flap include /r/ (as in party) and occasionally /l/ (as in faulty). Syllabic /l/ may also follow the flap (as in bottle).
Word-medially, the vowel following the flap must not only be unstressed but also be a reduced one (namely /ə/, morpheme-final or prevocalic /i, oʊ/, or /ɪ/ preceding /ŋ/), so words like botox, retail and latex are not flapped in spite of the primary stress on the first syllables, while pity, motto and Keating can be. The second syllables in the former set of words can thus be considered as having secondary stress.
Word-medial flapping is also prohibited in foot-initial positions. This prevents words such as militaristic, spirantization and Mediterranean from flapping, despite capitalistic and alphabetization, for example, being flapped. This is known as the Withgott effect.
Exceptions include the preposition/particle to and words derived from it, such as today, tonight, tomorrow and together, wherein /t/ may be flapped when intervocalic (as in go to sleep [ˌɡoʊɾəˈsliːp]). In Australian English, numerals thirteen, fourteen and eighteen are often flapped despite the second vowel being stressed.
The cluster /nt/ (but not /nd/) in the same environment as flapped /t/ may also be flapped, mostly resulting in a nasal flap [ɾ̃]. Intervocalic /n/ is also often realized as a nasal flap, so words like winter and winner can become homophonous. According to Wells (1982), in the United States, Southerners tend to pronounce winter and winner identically, while Northerners, especially those from the east coast, tend to retain the distinction, pronouncing winter [ˈwɪɾ̃ɚ] and winner [ˈwɪnɚ]. In a limited number of words such as seventy, ninety and carpenter, /nt/ is more frequently pronounced as [nd], retaining /n/ and voicing /t/, although it may still become [ɾ̃] in fast speech.
Flapping is a specific type of lenition, specifically intervocalic weakening. It leads to the neutralization of the distinction between /t/ and /d/ in appropriate environments, a partial merger of the two phonemes, provided that both /t/ and /d/ are flapped. Some speakers, however, flap only /t/ but not /d/. For speakers with the merger, the following utterances sound the same or almost the same:
|/-t-, -nt-/||/-d-, -n-/||IPA||Notes|
|at 'em||add 'em||ˈæɾəm|
|center||sinner||ˈsɪɾ̃əɹ||With pen–pin merger.|
|don't it||doughnut||ˈdoʊɾ̃ət||With weak-vowel merger and toe-tow merger.|
|futile||feudal||ˈfjuːɾəl||With weak-vowel merger before /l/.|
|heated||heeded||ˈhiːɾɪ̈d||With meet-meat merger.|
|hurting||herding||ˈhɜːɹɾɪŋ||With fern-fir-fur merger.|
|liter||leader||ˈliːɾəɹ||With meet-meat merger.|
|manta||manner||ˈmæɾ̃ə||In non-rhotic accents.|
|manta||manor||ˈmæɾ̃ə||In non-rhotic accents.|
|Marty||Mardi||ˈmɑːɹɾi||In the term Mardi Gras.|
|meant it||minute||ˈmɪɾ̃ɪ̈t||With pen–pin merger.|
|minty||many||ˈmɪɾ̃i||With pen–pin merger.|
|neuter||nuder||ˈnuːɾəɹ, ˈnjuːɾəɹ, ˈnɪuɾəɹ|
|parity||parody||ˈpæɹəɾi||With weak-vowel merger|
|rated||raided||ˈɹeɪɾɪ̈d||With pane-pain merger.|
|router||ruder||ˈɹuːɾəɹ||With yod-dropping after /ɹ/.|
|seating||seeding||ˈsiːɾɪŋ||With meet-meat merger.|
|set it||said it||ˈsɛɾɪ̈t|
|traitor||trader||ˈtɹeɪɾəɹ||With pane-pain merger.|
|Tudor||tutor||ˈtuːɾəɹ, ˈtjuːɾəɹ, ˈtɪuɾəɹ|
|waiter||wader||ˈweɪɾəɹ||With pane-pain merger.|
|whiter||wider||ˈwaɪɾəɹ||With wine–whine merger.|
In accents characterized by Canadian raising, such words as riding and writing may be flapped yet still distinguished by the quality of the vowel: riding [ˈɹaɪɾɪŋ], writing [ˈɹʌɪɾɪŋ]. Vowel duration may also be different, with a longer vowel before /d/ than before /t/, due to pre-fortis clipping.