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I thought "ts" should sound differently. I believe rights and rice are not homophones; if so, why should patients and patience be homophones? Because the sound t is canceled after n?

These two words, Patients vs. Patience, are no different. The words patients and patience are homophones, which mean they sound the same when they are spoken, but when they are spelt, spellings are different and have different meanings. — Toppr

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    You are correct. They aren't homophones. The "ts" sound should be pronounced. It can be hard to hear it however if you aren't familiar with that sound, and native speakers talk rather fast sometimes and tend to flow words into each other
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 22, 2023 at 15:26
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    There is a spoken joke, once well-known in the United States (I want to say it was done by Groucho Marx, or maybe one of the "MASH" characters impersonating Groucho Marx, or both): "I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn't have the [patience/patients]." Jan 23, 2023 at 20:41
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    As you can see, this is a question you shouldn't trust native speakers to answer. The physics doesn't lie, but the idea that they're the same sound is incompatible with the way we think of our language. Jan 24, 2023 at 3:06
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    People are commenting as if rapid speech isn't a perfectly normal way of talking. Linguists would be pretty remiss if they didn't treat the actual articulation as language, and not just "how it 'should' be pronounced. Every language is like this, by the way. They are homophones. Jan 24, 2023 at 14:53
  • A couple more words to add to that list... Patient's, Patients' (posessive forms).
    – david
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:06

3 Answers 3

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Edit: My old answer here was wrong, completely wrong, confusing two unrelated phenomena. I'm rather disappointed that I got 15 upvotes instead of angry comments. I would just delete this answer, but you can't delete an answer after the question is marked as solved, so I'll replace it with a quote from Geoff Lindsey's English after RP, which addresses the similar case of prince and prints (pp. 63-64):

Traditionally, many words of English contain a nasal consonant followed by a fricative. An example would be prince, /prɪns/. The /n/ is a stop sound, which means that the oral airflow of speech is stopped; the tongue blade is held against the alveolar ridge while breath is re-directed through the nose. As /n/ changes to /s/, airflow must be switched from nasal to oral, and at the same time the stoppage at the alveolar ridge must be released. If the second of these events happens a little late, there’s a brief period in which both nasal and oral airflow are stopped. This is a brief oral stop or plosive at the same place of articulation as the nasal, creating in this case [prɪnts] , which may be indistinguishable from prints. [...] Epenthesis of an oral stop between a nasal and a fricative is very natural. Many speakers do it on some occasions but not others; the epenthetic stop may be so brief as to be barely noticeable, or it may clearly be a f­ully-­fledged plosive consonant.

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    I live in the northeast US, and grew up partly in the Midwest US. I pronounce these two identically, and I have not noticed a difference in the way others pronounce them. If some speakers distinguish them, I am not aware of it. I can only add a data point to this answer, which does not seem enough for a separate answer. Jan 23, 2023 at 17:12
  • For this BrE speaker, it's not so much that I pronounce the t clearly but make a longer pause after the n. Jan 23, 2023 at 19:21
  • @DavidSiegel I suspect this is related to the slow march of t-glottalization, where /t/ is replaced with /ʔ/ in words like "button." I usually pronounce "right foot" as /ˈɹaɪʔ fʊʔ/.
    – alphabet
    Jan 23, 2023 at 20:17
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    Yeah, count me (in Houston) as another data point for "they're homophones": /ˈpeɪʃɨns/. I'd have to strain to pronounce the /t/.
    – dan04
    Jan 23, 2023 at 23:00
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    Grew up in northeast US - I pronounce these the same (and never realized it until now) - just another data point.
    – Aurast
    Jan 24, 2023 at 18:42
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There may be people who distinguish these two, and we can do so in especially careful slow speech, but for most English speakers speaking normally, they are indeed homophones.

It is indeed the /n/ that makes a difference.

In the transition from /n/ to /s/, if the velum closes a moment before the tongue-tip leaves the alveolar ridge, then there will be a momentary closure, ie. /t/.

Conversely, in the sequence /nts/, the /t/ is released only in the sibilant /s/, so is barely heard.

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    Pay-shents and pay-shens are manifestly not homophones.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 23, 2023 at 23:47
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    @RonJohn For the stilted, formally speaking amongst us who make that differentiation, you are absolutely correct. But the gazillions of people who say pay-shens in both circumstances would - correctly - disagree. ;-)
    – mcalex
    Jan 24, 2023 at 1:11
  • Whether there’s an alveolar closure isn’t generally the deciding factor distinguishing /ns/ from /nts/ to me: rather, it’s the fact that tautosyllabic /VNT/ (vowel + nasal + unvoiced plosive) entails glottalisation of the vowel in most contexts. This glottalisation does not occur with /ns/, at least not in unstressed syllables (it does sometimes in stressed ones). Whether you pronounce patience with a /t/ or patients without a /t/, you will almost certainly have a glottalised schwa in patients, but not in patience. Jan 24, 2023 at 19:13
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They are not homophones

All due respect to Toppr, people who take the time to learn and practice good enunciation pronounce the "t" in "patients." I do so myself, and the position of my tongue when pronouncing those two words is very different, the result being a soft "t" in patients (tip of tongue behind my upper front teeth) vs. the non-existence of the "t" in patience (middle of the tongue pressed against the hard palate).

However, it's very, very common for them to pronounced as homophones in colloquial English

Few people worry about spoken language, therefore it is very common to hear the two words pronounced as homophones on the street. Keep in mind that we're talking about what is likely the majority of the English speaking peoples, who also pronounce the word "probably" as "prolly," which doesn't mean the word probably rhymes with holly.

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    First, you say no, but then you describe 'yes'. Second, 'people who take the time to learn and practice good enunciation' are not the gatekeepers of what is and isn't, correct language use. All the people who speak it, collectively, are. Third, 'probably' and 'prolly' are two different words. The written abbreviated form preceded the spoken. One wonders: do you enunciate and pronounce the 'th' in Sou'wester? ;-)
    – mcalex
    Jan 24, 2023 at 1:43
  • @mcalex First, I say "officially, no." Then, I say, "unofficially, yes." People who speak English correctly are, by definition, the gatekeepers of what is and is not correct English. And by your final logic, there should be two words: patients and patiens. It isn't true - just as there aren't two words, probably and prolly. Unsurprisingly, the word "prolly" doesn't appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It doesn't even appear in dictionary.com, which is the most liberal dictionary I know about.
    – JBH
    Jan 24, 2023 at 2:51
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    "People who speak English correctly" are literally people whose meaning is understood by their listener and has zero to do with where one's tongue happens to be at the time. Not sure how 'liberal' Collins and Macmillan are but there ya go. One wonders: is "ain't" considered a word over in Prescriptivityland ;-)
    – mcalex
    Jan 24, 2023 at 7:17
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    @ReversedEngineer School pupils who are being taught by their teachers how to make themselves understood, no; but Presidents of the USA? Absolutely! Although I wouldn't call them "gatekeepers", just "sources"; there is no "gate" that anyone can keep, language just happens. How do you think normalcy made it into dictionaries, even though "normality" was previously accepted as the "correct" word? Because people in positions of power have prestige, and prestige is one of the things that shapes the evolution of the language (any language).
    – IMSoP
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:20
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    It doesn't make sense to say that something "is not" a homophone, but is "pronounced as" a homophone. Homophony is a fact about pronunciation (and, perhaps, about perception), so if someone pronounces two words indistinguishably, it by definition is a homophone, for that speaker. What you're really saying is that they frequently are homophones, but according to some authority they shouldn't be. English has a huge number of words which were once pronounced differently, but at some point became homophones; that's a description of how they're pronounced, not a decision somebody made.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:26

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