American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

Syllabic /n/ occurs after GA /t,d/, as in cotton, certain, wooden, garden. Recall that the preceding /t/ is normally glottaled in these words, e.g. [ˈkɑːʔn̩] and [ˈsɜrʔn̩].

cotton- /ˈkɑːʔn̩/

certain- /ˈsɜrʔn̩/

The /d/ in cotton, certain, wooden, garden is pronounced with nasal plosion: the alveolar closure is maintained throughout the [dn]-sequence, and the release of the stop is effected by a sudden lowering of the soft palate, so that the air compressed behind the closure escapes abruptly through the nasal cavity. After other stops, as in open, urban, taken, organ, as well as after approximants, as in melon, lemon, common, singin’, foreign, /ən/ is normally heard.

open- /ˈoʊpən/

urban- /ˈɜrbən/

After fricatives, usage of syllabic /n/ varies. Some speakers clearly pronounce a transitional vowel in words like station, cousin, dozen, and especially after the fricative /v/, as in seven.

station – /ˈsteɪʃən/

cousin – /ˈkʌzɪn /

dozen – /ˈdʌzən/

seven – /ˈsɛvən/

Others use syllabic /n/, as reflected in the transcription that is used here: /ˈsteɪʃn̩, ˈsɛvn̩/.

station – /ˈsteɪʃn̩/

seven – /ˈsɛvn̩/

A preceding weak syllable inhibits some of these reductions. For instance, instead of [ʔn̩], we get /tn̩/ (nasal plosion) in words like skeleton, Puritan, Sheraton.

skeleton – /ˈskɛlətən/

Puritan – /ˈpjʊrətən/

And when /n/ is followed by /t/, it does not even become syllabic, as illustrated by accident and competent /ˈæksədənt, ˈkɑːmpətənt/.

accident – /ˈæksədənt/

competent – /ˈkɑːmpətənt/

Similarly, /ən/ is more common than /n̩/ after fricatives when a weak syllable precedes as in elephant, Sullivan.

elephant – / ˈɛləfənt /

Sullivan – /ˈsʌləvən/

After /s/, as in innocent, Madison, syllabic /n̩/ is always used, though: /ˈɪnəsn̩t, ˈmædəsn̩/.

innocent – /ˈɪnəsn̩t/

Madison – /ˈmædəsn̩/

In consonant + plosive sequences, /ən/ is common. So, we would expect /ən/ in words like Stockton, Ashton, Ogden, London, sunken, dampen. The consonant that precedes the plosive must not be approximant or vocalic: if the first of two preceding consonants is /r/, as in carton, harden, or vocalized /l/, as in moulten, golden, or elided /n/, as in mountain, sentence, syllabic /n/ is the rule, since we are essentially dealing with a single consonant rather than with two. Thus, [ˈkɑrʔn̩, ˈhɑrdn̩, ˈpɜrsn̩, ˈmoʊɫʔn̩, ˈmãʊ̃ʔn̩, ˈsɛ̃ʔn̩s].

Stockton – /ˈstɑːktən /

Ashton – /ˈæʃtən/

carton – /ˈkɑrʔn̩ /

harden- /ˈhɑrdn̩/

Here are some examples to illustrate the use of syllabic /n/ and the realization of a preceding /t/ or /d/:

Glottaled t + syllabic /n/          button, certain, important, Hilton, fountain

button – / ˈbʌʔn̩/

Nasal plosion of /t,d/               sudden, ardent, skeleton, Sheraton, harridan

sudden – /ˈsʌdn̩/

Non-syllabic /n/                       pagan, demon, commitment, militant, abandon

pagan – /ˈpeɪgən/

Word-medially, /ən/ alternates with /n̩/ after fricatives, as in reasonable, passionate: /ˈriːzənəbl̩ ~ ˈriːzn̩əbl̩/; /ˈpæʃənət ~ ˈpæʃn̩ət/. In more rapid styles, /n̩/ is apt to lose its syllabic status, so that reasonable is pronounced /ˈriːznəbl/ and personally /ˈpɜrsnəli/. After /t,d/, syllabic /n/ is the rule, as in matinee, botany, ordinary, hedonist, as well as in adjectives and present participles like fattening, maddening, fastening.

On the other hand, nouns ending in –ing have non-syllabic /n/. Compare lightning (noun) /ˈlaɪtnɪŋ/ and lightening (verb) /ˈlaɪtn̩ɪŋ/, fastening (noun) /ˈfæsnɪŋ/ and fastening (verb) /ˈfæsn̩ɪŋ/.

lightning – /ˈlaɪtnɪŋ/

lightening – /ˈlaɪtn̩ɪŋ/

Word-initial /ən/ may also become /n̩/ after fricatives and /t,d/, as in he had an affair /ˈhædn̩/, it’s an error /ɪtsn̩/, a hundred and ten /ˈhʌndrədn̩/, it’s enormous /ɪtsn̩ˈɔrməs/. Syllabic /n/ may also represent the suffix –ing, as in huntin’, eatin’, shootin’ [ˈhʌ̃ʔn̩, ˈiːʔn̩, ˈʃuːʔn̩].

he had an affair – /hi hædn̩ əˈfɛr/

it’s an error – /ɪtsn̩ ˈɛrər/

fastening – /ˈfæsnɪŋ/

fastening – /ˈfæsn̩ɪŋ/

huntin’ – /ˈhʌ̃ʔn̩ /

eatin’ – /ˈiːʔn̩ /

Advice for Dutch learners:

For syllabic /l/, concentrate on the context after /t,d/, as in little, middle, where you should practice lateral plosion: [ˈɪɾl̩], etc.

For syllabic /n/, concentrate on /tn/ and /dn/ sequences, as in written, hidden. Remember that /t/ tends to be glottaled (or glottalized) before syllabic /n/ if the preceding vowel is accented. Note that wouldn’t /ˈwʊdnt/ has nasal plosion for /d/, unlike Dutch woedend, which is normally /ˈʋudənt/.

After fricatives, try to use /n̩/ rather than /ən/, especially after /s,z,ʃ/, as in mustn’t, dozen, patient.