Friday, 30 April 2010


The standard descriptions of English phonetics really fall down — it seems to me — when it comes to the sequence involving a voiceless plosive preceded by a nasal and followed by a lateral, such as we have in recently.
Reading Gimson’s Introduction, even in Cruttenden’s latest revision (the seventh, 2008: §9.2.4 The Release Stage of English Plosives, (5) Lateral release, p. 167), you would imagine that in such a case we always get lateral release of an alveolar plosive, i.e. ˈriːsntlli. True, there’s also a section in the book headed ‘Glottal replacement in RP’ (§9.2.8 (c), p. 180), but it contains no examples of a plosive preceded by a nasal. (To be fair, neither does the panel on Glottal Stop in LPD.)
There are people who do indeed have a laterally released alveolar plosive, just as described. I do myself, in relatively formal or careful speech. But I also have another option, as I think most people do.
This is to have a glottal stop between the sonorants: ˈriːsnʔli. Listening to the party leaders debating on television last night, I was struck by the fact that not only the Scotsman (Brown) but also both of the privately educated Englishmen (Clegg and Cameron) used this variant, in this word and even more strikingly in importantly ɪmˈpɔːʔnʔli.
Actually, though, just labelling the segment a glottal stop does not tell the whole story. Once the tongue tip has made contact with the alveolar ridge for the n segment in recently, it retains the contact until the end of the l segment. What we have for the plosive between them (in the variant I’m discussing) is a double articulation, alveolar and glottal. You can tell there’s glottal closure as well as alveolar from the absence of the typical burst noise of lateral release as we move on to the lateral. The glottal closure is the more important of the two closures, since once the air stream is dammed by the closed glottis it is not available to build up pressure behind the alveolar closure, hence no noise of lateral release. If you find it helpful to have a phonetic symbol for every allophone, you could write this one [t͡ʔ] (t and ʔ joined by a tie bar).
It is not even clear that the double plosive has nasal approach. At the end of the n segment the airstream may well be cut off not so much by the rising soft palate as by the coming together of the vocal folds. Perhaps the /t/ in recently has neither nasal approach nor lateral release.
I think this is the usual pronunciation of /t/ in this phonetic environment in AmE, too.


  1. Another example of how fascinating English is phonetically.

    [ˈriːsntˡli]: If the t is released laterally, is there a regular l left? Put otherwise, is there a phonetic difference between [ˈriːsntˡi] and [ˈriːsntˡli]?

  2. Yes, there is. 'Release' is a movement, a transition. But [l] is a segment. You can't have a lateral release without some sort of a lateral segment to follow, even if it's very short. Note that in IPA a raised symbol does NOT mean a segment that is very short: it doesn't mean a segment at all, it's a diacritic relating to the preceding symbol.

  3. Ah, thanks, that makes sense. (I hadn't understood the raised symbol to indicate shortness.)

  4. You're right about the glottal stop being predominant here in NAE. I speak a hybrid Massachusetts-General American dialect, and a plosive [t] in "recently" or "importantly" sounds so formal/stilted that I can't think of any situation where I would use it.

  5. Yeah, I agree with Lazar and I speak something close to "General American" (if such a thing exists). Although I have kind of a western American accent with a few Southern features mixed in for good measure.

  6. I sometimes recommend the use of [ʔ] to those of my students (Japanese) who find it difficult to make lateral release of [t]. It works quite well. The trouble is the students then tend to get the habit of wrongly substituting [ʔ] for [d] in words like “sadly”, “kindly”, “middle”, etc.

  7. In observing my own articulation of this sequence, I believe I too am "reinforcing" the alveolar stop with a glottal one. I wonder about the order of events, though. The sequence [sn̩] is identical in place of articulation to [t] and so the salient action of the stop is occurring at the glottis. The next event, after that double stop is a lateral release from what we could describe as an alveolar stop. So wouldn't it be more accurately descriptive to write[ˈɹisn̩ʔtˡli]? Perhaps not, since I would probably transcribe what I would imagine to be your pronunciation of "St. Paul's" as [sn̩t̚ pɔɫz]. In that case, though, the inaudibly released /t/ that imagine you would make, isn't subsequently being released laterally as it would be in "recently".

    The question I'm left with is, "when is a /t/ not a /t/?"

  8. It occurs to me that the glottal stop isn't released audibly either. So my new entry in the sweepstakes is [ˈɹisn̩ʔ̚tˡli].

  9. @JW: Two questions:

    1. Are you saying

    * that [ˈriːsntˡli] and [ˈriːsntˡi] are both possible utterances, but phonetically different, OR

    * that [ˈriːsntˡi] is not a possible utterance?

    2. If I were saying "recently" in ultra-formal or ultra-clear mode, I would give the [t] alveolar release, and follow it with [l]. Is there a way in IPA to specify that [t] has alveolar release (and not, as may be assumed when followed by [l]. lateral release)?

  10. to VP:
    1. I am saying that it is a logical contradiction to have lateral release but no lateral segment. Therefore [ˈriːsntˡi] is not possible.
    2. You could write [-ntʰli] or perhaps make ad-hoc use of the raised = sign that we sometimes use to show specific lack of aspiration (ExtIPA), thus [-nt˭li].

  11. There is a somewhat similar phenomenon going on in Swedish: a word like "egentligen" ('really, properly') is often pronounced with a [k] instead of a [t]. While "egentligen" is the most oft-mentioned example, the same phenomenon occurs in other words like "ordentlig" ('order-minded'), but presumably never in a more uncommon compound like "pantlån" ('loan on deposit').