Americans’ help needed–can vs. can’t

Alessandra   Wed Nov 15, 2006 7:12 am GMT
The difference between CAN and CAN’T in AMERICAN PRONUNCIATION is rather difficult for some people to hear. The difference is not just the small "T" at the end of the word "CAN'T". Surely there is more to that. It is difficult to distinguish the two when the Americans concerned speak too fast or too softly. Sometimes I don’t know if they mean CAN or CAN’T. I’m sure many other non-native speakers out there face the same difficulty.

So please, to any Americans out there, if you could explain the very subtle differences between CAN and CAN’T that would be a great help indeed.

Even better, if you don't mind, RECORD your pronunciations of CAN and CAN’T which highlight the differences and post it on the web. It will definitely save us from further misunderstandings and confusion.

Thank you in advance.
Lazar   Wed Nov 15, 2006 7:39 am GMT
One major difference (in fact, probably the most audible difference) is that the vowel in "can" is usually reduced (replaced by a schwa or syllabic "n"), whereas "can't" always uses a full vowel (like the vowel in the word "cat"). For example,

I can believe it = ["aI kn b@"liv It] = "Iken" believe it
I can't believe it = [aI "k{nt b@"liv It] = I "Kant" believe it

In the example above, "can" would almost never take a full vowel, and "can't" would never ever take a reduced vowel.


Even in situations where the "t" of "can't" is dropped, you can still tell that it is "can't" because it uses the full vowel. For example:

I can't allow it = [aI "k{n @"laU It] = I "Cannes" allow it

Even though in American English the "t" of can't would usually be dropped in this sentence, you can still tell that the verb is "can't" because it uses a full vowel. The positive version "I can allow it" would almost always use a reduced vowel:

I can allow it = ["aI kn= @"laU It] = "Iken" allow it


Just note that for my examples I've used:

"Kant", the name of the philosopher, rhyming with "pant" or "ant";

"Cannes", the name of the city in France, rhyming with "man" or "pan";

and "Iken", a made-up word that uses a long "I" (like in "fly") and a syllabic "n"
adf   Wed Nov 15, 2006 8:15 am GMT
Uriel   Wed Nov 15, 2006 10:53 am GMT
I always learned "Kant" as having a long A, as in father.

Like Lazar said, "can't" is almost always more stressed in a sentence than "can" would be in the same place. But occasionally it IS hard to tell one from the other, since we do tend to soften the T a lot, and then you have to ask the speaker to clarify. But most of us are just so used to listening for the subtle differences that we can usually make it out with no problem.
Sho   Wed Nov 15, 2006 12:20 pm GMT
How would you pronounce 'can' when it should be stressed?

I can't allow it.


I CAN allow it.
Johnathan Mark   Thu Nov 16, 2006 1:49 am GMT
I always pronounce can {kEn}.
Alessandra   Thu Nov 16, 2006 8:47 am GMT
Thank you, Lazar and Uriel.
Jen   Thu Nov 16, 2006 9:53 am GMT
How would you pronounce 'can' when it should be stressed?

I can't allow it.


I CAN allow it.

When we stress "CAN" in the above example, wouldn't it sound like "CAN'T" ???

Any comments?
Guest   Thu Nov 16, 2006 11:41 am GMT
In your example, with both words stressed, I would say:
Can't [k}~?]
Can [k}~n]

The tilde (~) is the nasal component which is common to both words. So the difference lies in the final sound of each word.

Can't ends in a glottal stop.
Can ends on the "n" sounding consonant.
Guest   Thu Nov 16, 2006 11:44 am GMT
Those should read:
Can't [k{~?]
Can [k{~n]
Jen   Thu Nov 16, 2006 2:17 pm GMT
Thanks, Guest. But I'm still lost. I'm not familiar with the symbols you used. And I don't know what a glottal stop means.
Guest   Fri Nov 17, 2006 6:41 am GMT
Well, to make things simpler, I sometimes pronounce can't with a "t" sound on the end, still with the nasal sound before it, but no "n" sound as per my previous description. It's like the nasal component of the word "sing", where again, one doesn't actually pronounce the "n" sounding consonant.

However, the "n" sounding consonant (as in "nick") is always pronounced in "can".
Uriel   Fri Nov 17, 2006 12:32 pm GMT
When we stress "CAN" in the above example, wouldn't it sound like "CAN'T" ???

Any comments?

No, it wouldn't, because in stressing CAN, you would say something like CANNN, where you would definitely (and definitively) drag out the N. There would be no doubt about the lack of any kind of final T, unaspirated or not.
Guest   Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:42 pm GMT
The lack of a final T in CAN'T in casual speech is what is causing the confusion for non-native speakers. They are trying to differentiate the two words by listening out for a T in CAN'T but quite often it isn't there.

Instead the focus should be on the "n" consonant. In casual speech, it's normally only heard in CAN, not in CAN'T.

PS: I'm regularly asked this question by students especially when relating to movies.
Jen   Sat Nov 18, 2006 10:37 am GMT
Thanks a lot, Guest and Uriel.

Do you (or anybody) know where I could listen to especially lots of "CAN'T" being spoken? (for example which movies or audio files, etc)?