My Sounds of Englishes class is taking over my life. This morning I heard my daughter say “cotton”, and I had to make a recording of her and everyone else in the room. She pronounces the second syllable with a vowel, and it sounds something like “in”. You can hear (and see in Praat) the second syllable in isolation in the video. The video also has me and another person pronouncing it with a syllabic nasal as it is pronounced in most North American varieties (I think!), and my daughter’s younger brother doing it with a vowel, and also with a [t] between the vowels, rather than a glottal stop (all of the others have glottal stop rather than [t] as is again probably the way it is said by most adult North Americans).
My daughter’s pronunciation of this type of word appears to be a feature of at least some varieties of Western Massachusetts English. I first heard about it maybe 10 years ago when a student in Sounds of Englishes pointed it out. More recently, I was at a dinner with non-linguist friends and they mentioned that one of their kids pronounces “kitten” in this Western Mass way (they are from elsewhere originally), and the other does not. Coincidentally, a couple days after that, I came across Joey Stanley’s excellent blog post on Utah English, in which this is a well known, and somewhat stigmatized, pronunciation. As far as I know, there is no stigma attached to the Western Mass vowel+nasal pronunciation.
Update Nov. 6, 2022: A 2021 paper by Eddington and Brown looks at production of vowel+nasal second syllables in words of this type in four states, and also at how these productions are perceived in terms of speaker characteristics (e.g. education, place of residence). It’s seeming increasingly like it’s everywhere, but that people think it’s a mark of their own region’s dialect.
Update Dec. 13: It seems my daughter has this vowel in other unstressed syllables too. In terms of phonetic transcription, she seems to vary between [ə] and [ɨ] in the second syllable of “salad”, but has consistent [ɨ] in “cotton”. On alternations between these vowels, see the “Rosa’s roses” paper (my daughter seems to have [ɨ] for the second syllable of both of “Rosa’s” and “roses”). Also, I just reread the first paragraph of this post and it’s a weird mix of trying to write for a general audience and for linguists. Oh well…