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I've noticed that in German, as in English, there are two pronunciations of the letter "t" - the full version and the stopped version. In English, we use the stopped version a lot - whenever a sentence ends on a t, for example, we cut off the t sound without aspiration. So, for example, "I like it" would end with the tongue somewhere on the roof of the mouth or behind the teeth or thereabouts, cutting off air flow and preventing the complete sound that we would hear if the tongue were then released with a little puff of air. We often reduce the t at the end of syllables as well - for example, in "butler." I think this occurs whenever the next syllable begins with a consonant. But my question is about German, not English.

In German, the stopped "t" exists but appears to be rarer. For example, when the t precedes the ending "en", the t appears to be stopped (as it also is in English), so the German "hatten" is pronounced analogously to the English "kitten."

But I'm curious as to where else the phenomenon might occur. Does anyone have a more comprehensive list of the situations in which native German speakers of the standard version of the language stop their t's?

For example, the t in "deutlich" sounds very subtle in these examples, but I can't tell whether the t is being fully stopped or is just being pronounced very fast. It's very tempting for me, as an English speaker, to stop the t in this word, but I don't know if that's really the approach I should be taking if I'm trying to learn the standard accent.

I've been unable to find a complete answer to this question - the closest I can find is here.

I'd add that I might be getting the terminology wrong here - whether we're talking about a glottal stop, a voiceless stop, aspiration - I'm not familiar with the linguistic jargon and I'm just hoping that it's clear what I'm asking here.

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3 Answers 3

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"stopped t" vs "full t"

What you call a "stopped t" is just a "normal" t, called "voiceless alveolar plosive" by linguists. Its IPA symbol is [t]. What you call the "full version" is in fact an aspirated t ("aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive") and is written with an superscript h after the t in phonetic script: [tʰ]. This symbol wants to express, that there is a tiny h-sound (like "h" in "hat" or "house") immediately after the t-sound.
Attention! This must not be confused with the sound of the letter-combination "th" in English words which is written in IPA symbols either as [ð] ("th" in "this") or [θ] ("th" in "thin"). [tʰ] means a t-sound followed by a weak h-sound. Similar for [pʰ] and [kʰ] which mean an aspirated p- oder k-sound.

The aspirated t-sound [tʰ] is much more common in German than the "normal" t-sound [t], while many other languages like Italian do not have aspirated sounds at all. The manner of German native speakers to aspirate almost every t-sound is one of the major aspects of their German accent when they learn Italian as foreign language.

So normally, the pronunciation of a German word like »Tal« in IPA symbols should be written as [tʰaːl]. But since this would confuse many English speakers, who are used to pronounce every th they see as [ð] or [θ], and because almost every German t is aspirated anyway, this is not done.1 But that there is an h-sound after the t becomes visible, when you read German texts published before 1901, because words like »Thal« (now: Tal) or »Thür« (now: Tür) were spelled with an h after the t before the orthographic conference of 1901 to mark the aspiration even in written German. And in loanwords like Theater and Thron this spelling still exists.

So, when do you speak [t] and when [tʰ] in German?

I have not found any sources that explain this, but I can tell you what I, as a native German speaker, notice when I listen to other German native speakers. Maybe you will find additional information from other people in the comments:

  • Use an unaspirated [t] (the one you call "stopped") only before consonants.
  • Use an aspirated [tʰ] (the one you call "full") before spoken vowels and at the end of words and syllables.

Note that I have written "spoken" vowels. This is important, because there are many German words where a vowel is written, but no vowel is spoken at all. You example »hatten« is such a word:

  • spelling: "hatten"; pronunciation: [ˈhatn̩]

The IPA symbol [n̩] means a vocalized n-sound (a hummed n that is used instead of a vowel). And although it is a vocalized sound, it still is not a vowel and therefore the t before it should not be aspirated: You press the tip of your tongue to the dental ridge immediately behind the upper incisors to stop the air flow, which produces the t-sound, but then you don't release the tongue (which would produce the aspiration), but you leave it where it is and hum trough the nose which produces the n-sound.

Final obstruent devoicing (Auslautverhärtung)

There is a phenomenon that also should be considered when talking about the pronunciation of the letters "t" and "d" in German:

When you listen to a speaker from northern regions of Germany, you will hear, that they pronounce the letter "d" at the end of a word as if it was a "t". Lets take this sentence as example:

Wenn dich der Tod holt, bist du tot.
When death comes for you, you are dead.

The spellings of the noun Tod (death) and the adjective tot differ (besides capitalization) only in the last letter. But in most parts of Germany, both words are pronounced as [toːt], i.e with an unvoiced consonant. When talking about pronunciation of consonants, "unvoiced" is "hart" (hard) in German and "voiced" is "weich" (soft). So we say, that "das weiche D" (the soft/voiced d) is pronounced like "ein hartes T" (a hard/unvoiced T) at the end of the word.

But this phenomenon is much weaker in southern regions (like Austria, where I live). Some people say, that it even doesn't exist in Austria, Switzerland and southern regions of Germany, but I would just say its much weaker here. So in Austria you will hear a noticeable difference between »Tod« and »tot«, although the »d« in »Tod« sounds still harder or less voiced than the »d« in »Mastodon«. There is a continuum of d/t-sounds, and the »d« in »Tod« is somewhere in the middle, closer to d than to t in Austria, but it's at the t-end in northern parts of Germany.

BUT ...
... this has nothing to do with the topic of your question. Final obstruent devoicing has to do with the shift from [d] to [t] (and [b] to [p] and [g] to [k] and also [z] to [s] in regions where [z] is used). Final obstruent devoicing has nothing to do with aspiration. Both, [d] and [t] will be aspirated in German at the end of a word, so this doesn't change. It just becomes a little bit stronger, because the aspiration of [d] is more subtile than that of [t].


1 There is a similar issue with the German sound for the vowel »a« that is more centralized spoken in German than what is meant by the IPA symbol [a] and therefore should be written together with the diacritic symbol ̈ , but then it would become [ä], which would be very confusing for German native speakers, because there is the German umlaut letter »ä«, and it's pronunciation is very different form the sound described by the IPA-symbol [ä]. Instead the German »ä« is pronounced as [ɛ] or [e]. And so, the centralization of the German a is not marked in German words in IPA symbols, and also the aspiration of the German t is also not marked in German words in IPA symbols.

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  • Thanks for the answer and the interesting background info. As far as the unaspirated "t" being used before consonants, would it possibly depend on what comes before or after the t? For example, if my youglish clips are to be trusted, "Rotkäppchen" seems more likely to call for a more aspirated t than, for example, "Atmung." But perhaps this isn't really a trend and is rather just a result of the particular German speakers that the video search happened to produce.
    – cruthers
    Aug 23, 2023 at 13:47
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The most important difference between German and English in this respect is that many German speakers, especially from the north of the German-speaking area, don't make or hear any difference between d and t at the end of syllables. This is something you hear in German accents when they speak English, many German speakers are unable to pronunce the difference between bad, bed, bat and bet. You'll also find this "Auslautverhärtung" in standard German pronunciation, which is based on a northern pronunciation.

You can speak the "tl" in "deutlich" like in "butler" or like in "Bette Midler", and if you listen to the Youtube snippets in your link, you can hear that most speakers make it sound like "deudlich", in that the sound is the same as the one at the beginning of the word. The more clearly they try to speak, the more it sounds like t.

Regarding the "stopped t" or "full t", I think you're right that the plosive (the sound of the air "exploding" when the tongue is taken away from the roof of the mouth) is quite clear when a vocal follows, less clear when a consonant follows. But in all cases, both kinds of t are possible, and it again depends a lot on how clearly people are trying to speak.

At the end of a sentence, a "stopped t" is not as common in German as it is in English though IMO. In German, the tongue blocks the air only very shortly and you will normally clearly hear the plosive at the end.

Der Diamant hat 3 Karat.
Es ist zu spät.

In the middle of a sentence, I wouldn't worry about it too much. It's much like in English, and the difference mainly depends on how precise the speaker wants to be in their pronunciation, maybe also on their regional accents.

What German speakers don't do is omit a letter t, like in "castle" or replace it by a glottal stop like in the Cockney pronunciation of "wa'er" or "Bri'ish".

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    Please do not mix up "Germans" and "German speakers"! You post sounds, as is both groups were identical, but they are not. 9 million people from Austria (including me) and about 5 million from Switzerland are also German native speakers, but they are not Germans. I'm not fully convinced, that this sentence is correct: »Germans don't make or hear any difference between d and t at the end of syllables.« But when you replace »Germans« by »German speakers« it definitely becomes wrong, because final obstruent devoicing is a phenomenon of northern regions. In Austria you will hear a ... Aug 22, 2023 at 7:55
  • ... clear difference between Grat and Grad. Quote from de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auslautverhärtung: »Die standarddeutsche Auslautverhärtung ist eine Sonderentwicklung des nördlichen Deutschlands – im südlichen Deutschland sowie in Teilen Mitteldeutschlands tritt sie ebenso wenig auf wie im österreichischen Deutsch oder im Schweizer Hochdeutsch.« (»The standard German final obstruent devoicing is a special development of northern Germany - in southern Germany as well as in parts of central Germany it occurs just as little as in Austrian German or in Swiss High German.«) Aug 22, 2023 at 7:56
  • @HubertSchölnast: ok, that was a bit oversimplified there, I edited. You're the expert for Austrian, but If I look up "Grat" and "Grad" for Austria on aussprache.at, I get [ˈɡʀaːtʰ] for both, and I don't hear any "d" in the recordings either. So I still have doubts tbh.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 22, 2023 at 11:49
  • Thanks. At least in the U.S., "Bette Midler" would also be pronounced with the stopped T - in this instance, it doesn't matter that the t sound ends a word rather than just a syllable within a word. But perhaps this distinction is important in German? Would the "t" be more likely to be fully pronounced in "ins Bett kommen" than in the word "Bettkante" - both of which have t-k?
    – cruthers
    Aug 23, 2023 at 13:29
  • @cruthers: no, I don't see any difference between "tk" in "ins Bett kommen" and "Bettkante" in that respect. The consonant "k" is different from "l" and "m", because you will have to take the tip of the tongue away from the roof of the mouth to go from "t" to "k", so including the plosive comes naturally if you're not talking too fast, and it makes the "t" much more hearable.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 23, 2023 at 13:51
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Are you referring to t-glottalization? That phenomenon exists in German, but it is less common than in English.

Glottalization occurs in Northern pronunciations of clusters formed by a stop and a homorganic nasal, see Realisierung von /t/ in Daten und warten in the Atlas zur Aussprache des deutschen Gebrauchsstandards (AADG). A nasal release of the stop is more widespread, though. Especially in Switzerland, where the pronunciation of Standard German tends to follow the written form very closely, the stops tend to be released in the normal way (orally). A glottal release of isolated stops at the ends of syllables is not usual in German.

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