Native Speaker

Native Speaker

I know a woman from Colombia whose first name – Betty – is also a common English name1.

Betty is very dissatisfied with the pronunciation her name receives here. She does not recognize  the softer t sound of the middle double consonant, nor can she replicate it. “ Beddy?” she says, “I am always wanting to know who is Beddy.”  She hears and reproduces the English tt sound as dd, which is not an accurate pronunciation of her name in English, either. She would like to hear sharp t’s. In Spanish all t’s are sharp sounds.

For American English speakers the letter t has two main sounds, three if you include the letter d in its sound family. The first, a sharp aspirated one (a fricative, in linguistics) used for t’s at the beginning and end of words, is made with the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth near the front teeth but back, without throat/voice box vocalization.  The second sound is used for t’s that show up in the middle of words, and is made with a flatter tongue glancing off the roof of the mouth a little closer to the teeth and with the larynx.  To pronounce the letter d, English speakers flatten the tongue even more and touch the roof of the mouth more firmly, while also vocalizing2.

I explained this to Betty, that tt in the middle of a word represented a medial sound, in-between t and d.  And I had two examples from Spanish to illustrate the idea of graduated pronunciations.  The first concerns the letters b, v, and f.  In Spanish v is called be chica (meaning little b), and its name is also an indication of the medial character of its sound, between b and f. To pronounce b you press your lips together and open them while vocalizing.  To pronounce f, you vocalize first and then stop the sound by closing your upper front teeth behind your bottom lip.  The letter v is pronounced in Spanish by doing all of the above, in a complex symphony.  V is a softer sound than either f or b, as tt in American English is softer than either t or d.

There is a medial pronunciation between d and t in Spanish, but it is made by adding a th sound to the letter d, and can be represented dth.  This is the sound of d’s that occur, again, in the middle of words, like adiós, and universidad (which happens to contain both d sounds). For middle d’s sometimes all that is heard is the th sound. Even some initial d’s are softened in this way, depending on the word they follow. For example the d in Buenos días is pronounced more softly than the initial d in the imperative dígame (tell me).  All d’s in Spanish are softer than those in English.

Betty seemed hardly satisfied with my explanation, and I am not sure why. Perhaps she still feels the alternate pronunciation a slight, rather than the accommodation it is. But I can make allowances. I think medial sounds are the most difficult for non-native speakers to hear and learn, and this is how I always recognize (without prejudice) a native English speaker in Spanish – hard d’s, soft t’s, and hard v’s, especially those in the middle of words.

And unrolled r’s, natch.


  1. a diminutive of Elizabeth, from the Hebrew Elisheba. In Spanish Betty is also a diminutive of Beatriz
  2. I have noticed a fourth (new?) pronunciation of t here in the Northeast. Middle t’s are ‘sounded’ by a pause created by not using the tongue at all, only the larynx. The effect is that of no consonant separating vowel sounds, even as the vowels are distinctly sounded. As in ‘Bri__en’ for Britain.
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