69: Numbers: Teens versus Tens (as in 19 vs. 90)

Syllable stress and alternative 't sounds' are used to differentiate these sounds more than the /n/ at the end of teens!

Transcript

Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 69th episode.

Today I'm going to go into a topic I've never talked about on these podcasts before: numbers. Specifically I'm going to talk about the most misinterpreted numbers in English. These are not just the most misinterpreted by non-native speakers and ESL students, but by native speakers as well. It seems to me to just be a poor design in English!

I'm talking about teens and tens, as in 13 and 30, 14 and 40, 15 and 50, 16 and 60, 17 and 70, 18 and 80 and 19 and 90.

The most obvious difference between these numbers is that the teens end in an n sound and the tens do not. However, that n sound does not seem to be adequate in always distinguishing the numbers in actual speech.

The dictionaries all seem to agree that the tens and teens are stressed on the first syllable, though they generally also show that the teens can be stressed on the second syllable as well.

So, we can sometimes use syllable stress to tell the difference, but not always, because which syllable of the teens is stressed can shift! Context actually plays into the syllable stress of the teens. If the teen is used before a noun, it is more likely to be stressed on the first syllable.

For example:

 

There were thirteen candles on the cake.

 

In that sentence, the first syllable of thirteen was stressed. I'll say the sentence again.

 

There were thirteen candles on the cake.

 

If the teen is the final word of a phrase or sentence, it is more likely to be stressed on the second syllable. For example:

 

The twins just turned thirteen.

 

The second syllable of thirteen was stressed. I'll say the sentence again.

 

The twins just turned thirteen.

 

If the twins just turned thirty, 3-0, it would be the first syllable of the number getting stressed.

 

The twins just turned thirty.

 

I'll compare 13 and 30 at the end of the sentence again so you can notice the difference. I'll say the sentence with thirteen (1-3) first.

 

The twins just turned thirteen.
The twins just turned thirty.

 

Knowing the syllable stress rules may help you understand which number was said some of the time, like when the number is the last word of a sentence, but there is actually a bigger clue, and it has to do with that darn t sound again. I'm not trying to have so many podcasts that go back to t sound alternatives, but now that I've done all the t sound alternatives, I've found all these other topics that were dependant on some t sound background information. So I hope you're not tired of thinking about the t sound yet!

Let me begin by saying this, all of the teens keep their t sound. It does not change for any of them, no matter what the sounds around the t sound are. I'm going to say all the teens, and I want you to hear the t sound in all of them.

 

thirteen
fourteen
fifteen
sixteen
seventeen
eighteen
nineteen

 

The tens, however, tend to change their t sound to a d sound. I'm going to say all the tens between 30 and 90, and I want you to hear the substituted d sound.

 

thirty
forty
fifty
sixty
seventy
eighty
ninety

 

I need to mention that not everyone makes this substitution, and the number fifty is probably more likely to keep the t sound because it follows an f sound. The f sound does not usually cause a t sound to alter. The number ninety may also have the t sound omitted completely because it follows an n sound. It would then sound like "niney".

I didn't compare the number twenty because it does not have a similar-sounding teen. I do still want to talk just a bit about the number twenty. The number twenty will not change the t to a d, but it may omit the t sound. Are you confused yet? I hope not. If so, going to pronuncian and reading the transcripts will help you understand it.

Here are the two general rules that will hopefully help you better understand and be better understood:

 

  1. If it is stressed on the second syllable, it is probably a teen.
  2. The numbers 30-90 often substitute a d sound for the t sound.

Are you ready to repeat after me? I'm going to do this two ways. First, I'm just going to read the numbers in order, then I'm going to compare the teens to the tens.

 

Here they are in order. Please, repeat after me, unless you're in a public space and people will think you're crazy. I'm going to stress the teens with their more common first syllable stress pattern.

 

thirteen
fourteen
fifteen
sixteen
seventeen
eighteen
nineteen

 

And here are the tens with their more common and less formal pronunciation. I'll throw 20 in just for good measure.

 

twenty
thirty
forty
fifty
sixty
seventy
eighty
ninety

 

Now I'm going to compare them like minimal pairs.

 

thirteen, thirty
fourteen, forty
fifteen, fifty
sixteen, sixty
seventeen, seventy
eighteen, eighty
nineteen, ninety

 

There you go! Hopefully that is one more mystery of English pronunciation solved! As I said in the beginning, don't take it personally if people ask you to repeat numbers for clarity; it happens even among native speakers all the time. You can always feel free to spell the number when comprehension is especially important.

Here's an example, say it's 1:30 in the afternoon and you're running to the bus stop. You get there and ask someone what time the number 70 goes by. The person asks, "70, 7-0?" to confirm that you weren't asking about the number 17 bus. The kind person you asked says the number 70 stops every hour at 1:40. You can confirm by saying, "1:40, 4-0?" Now you know you haven't missed the bus or misheard 1:14 as the time the bus would pass by. You will only have to wait 10 minutes for the bus instead of around 45 minutes.

As always, you can read the transcripts for this podcast for free at www.pronuncian.com. That is also the place you can buy either of my books, "Pronunciation Pages, Sounds of American English," or "Rhythm and Intonation of American English." Both are available as either a physical book, or a downloadable PDF book. You purchases directly support creation of these podcasts and Pronuncian.com content.

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That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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