flap

A flap (also: alveolar tap or single tap trill) is a term that describes a speech sound produced when the tongue quickly and briefly makes contact with the ridge behind the upper front teeth. This term is frequently used among cuers to refer specifically to the flap that occurs as an allophone of /t/.

Allophone of /t/

In American English, a flap is produced when /t/ occurs between two vowels and the first is stressed (e.g., butter, thirty, cattle, water). A flap may be less likely to occur if another consonant preceeds /t/ (e.g., hatmaker, helter) or when the vowel immediately following the /t/ is stressed (e.g., gratuity, maternal, Italian). In England, on the other hand, the flap is not likley to appear in dialects even in the context prescribed above. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the alveolar flap is represented as [ɾ] (Similar to a hook or to the letter r without the ascending stroke).

Allophone of Other Phonemes

A flap can occur as an allophone of other phonemes. For example, it occurs in Spanish when speaking the /r/ in pero.

Cueing Allophones

Hearing cuers often closely associate handshape 5 with the aspirated allophone of /t/ (as in tip). This is reinforced during introductory classes when instructors refer to the handshape as /m f t/ and produce the /t/ with strong puff of air so it can be easily heard by participants. However, that aspirated version is not the only allophone associated with handshape 5.

Handshape 5 represents /t/ in all of its forms. Cuers sometimes complain, “But I don’t say ‘Batman’” with the same /t/ as in ‘tip.’” Of course they’re right. But handshape 5 isn’t meant to just represent that /t/ that’s accompanied by a puff of air. Likewise, the vowel in the words pat and pan is considered the same phoneme, however they are produced very differently. Some savvy beginners will pick up on this difference and want to cue them differently. However, American English cueing does not convey the nasality of certain vowels.

The Problem for Cuers

In the example of pat and pan, the answer is pretty straightforward. We don’t have any way to cue the difference between the vowel sounds. In the case of flap /t/, the allophone of /t/ sounds similar to an allophone of /d/. One might even say it sounds closer that the allophone in “tip.” So cuers want to cue it as a different phoneme.

In reality, it is not a /d/ phoneme. The context of /t/ (between vowels and with stress on the first vowel) causes the loss of aspiration and for the voice to turn on a little early for the second vowel. These do make the /t/ sound more /d/-like, but it does not make it a /d/.

Loss of aspiration also occurs when /t/ or /p/ is preceeded by /s/ (e.g., stay, steam, spit, spice). In these cases the /t/ and the /p/ are not produced with a big puff of air (as they would be produced when someone refers to their handshapes). This can make the /t/ sound more /d/-like and the /p/ more /b/-like. But native English users know that these words are not *sday, *sdeam, *sbit, and *sbice eventhough they start sounding close to those pronunciations.

Practice

cattle, dirty, fatter, fattest, knitting, matter, motor, rattle, sitting, waiter, water

butter

  • /bʌˈtɚ/
  • /buhˈtur/
  • /bŭˈtûr/
  • 4sd5m

thirty

  • /θɚˈtiˌ/
  • /thurˈteeˌ/
  • /thûrˈtēˌ/
  • 7m5m

cattle

  • /kæˈtəl/
  • /kaˈtəl/
  • /kăˈtəl/
  • 2t5sd6s

water

  • /wɔˈtɚ/
  • /wawˈtur/
  • /wôˈtûr/
  • 6c5m

gratuity

  • /grətuˈɪti/
  • /grətueˈitee/
  • /grəto͞oˈĭtē/
  • 7s3sd5c5t5m

maternal

  • /mətɚˈnəl/
  • /məturˈnəl/
  • /mətûrˈnəl/
  • 5sd5m4sd6s

Italian

  • /ɪtæˈljən/
  • /itaˈlyən/
  • /ĭtăˈlyən/
  • 5t5t6s8sd4s

tip

  • /tɪˈp/
  • /tiˈp/
  • /tĭˈp/
  • 5t1s

pat

  • /pæˈt/
  • /paˈt/
  • /păˈt/
  • 1t5s

pan

  • /pæˈn/
  • /paˈn/
  • /păˈn/
  • 1t4s

cattle

  • /kæˈtəl/
  • /kaˈtəl/
  • /kăˈtəl/
  • 2t5sd6s

dirty

  • /dɚˈti/
  • /durˈtee/
  • /dûrˈtē/
  • 1m5m

fatter

  • /fæˈtɚ/
  • /faˈtur/
  • /făˈtûr/
  • 5t5m

fattest

  • /fæˈtɪst/
  • /faˈtist/
  • /făˈtĭst/
  • 5t5t3s5s

knitting

  • /nɪˈtɪŋ/
  • /niˈting/
  • /nĭˈtĭng/
  • 4t5t8s

matter

  • /mæˈtɚ/
  • /maˈtur/
  • /măˈtûr/
  • 5t5m

motor

  • /moʊˈtɚ/
  • /mohˈtur/
  • /mōˈtûr/
  • 5sf5m

rattle

  • /ræˈtəl/
  • /raˈtəl/
  • /răˈtəl/
  • 3t5sd6s

sitting

  • /sɪˈtɪŋ/
  • /siˈting/
  • /sĭˈtĭng/
  • 3t5t8s

waiter

  • /weɪˈtɚ/
  • /wayˈtur/
  • /wāˈtûr/
  • 6c5t5m

water

  • /wɔˈtɚ/
  • /wawˈtur/
  • /wôˈtûr/
  • 6c5m