Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Peyton Manning and the Missing T Formation

Posted by Neal on February 6, 2010

Pey(t)on Manning

Thanks to my wife and Doug’s watching of the NFL playoffs, it’s come to my attention that the Super Bowl is this weekend; that one of the teams playing is the Indianapolis Colts; and that the Colts’ quarterback is one Peyton Manning. As I listened to TV commentators talk about Peyton Manning, I got to thinking about a local Utah newscast that James D. Smith brought to the attention of the American Dialect Society listserv back in November. The story was about younger speakers there “dropping their T’s”. It turned out they were talking about the pronunciation of words like mountain and Layton (a city in Utah). The transcript wrote the pronunciations as “mow-en” and “Lay-en”, and when I first read it, I wondered what the big deal was.

Among linguists, it’s well-known that in some varieties of American English, when you have a stressed syllable ending in a voiceless stop (such as /t/), a glottal stop [ʔ] is inserted before it. For example, here’s a spectrogram of me saying the word pate. (Click on it to make it bigger. I’ve also linked to a sound file — since I can’t embed sounds in the free version of WordPress — that you might want to open in a new tab or window.) The dark area labeled “ej” is the vowel; the vertical stripes correspond to the opening and closing of the vocal folds. As they approach he orange-highlighted area, they get farther and farther apart, as the vocal folds tense up and ultimately close. This is the glottal stop, labeled with a question mark because I couldn’t put the IPA symbol into the graphic. At some point during this 90 milliseconds of relative silence, I put my tongue tip into position for the [t], but that doesn’t show up: If the airstream is blocked at the vocal folds, another blockage downstream doesn’t make a difference. After the end of the orange-highlighted segment, you see a brief burst of sound, when I release the /t/.

My normal pronunciation of pate

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of pate)

How do I know that orange segment really had a glottal stop in it, and wasn’t just all [t]? Here’s another spectrogram, of me saying pate again, this time making sure to keep my vocal folds open. This time, the orange segment containing the [t] is about 50 milliseconds long, which is average for American English. In the earlier pronunciation, the orange segment is about twice as long.

My unglottalized pronunciation of pate

(Sound file: My unglottalized pronunciation of pate)

But what does all that have to do with a “missing T”? The next well-known phonological phenomenon is that when you have a stressed vowel followed by a [t] or [d], and the next syllable ends in [n] (as in Peyton and Madden), it’s common for the vowel between the [t] and the [n] to drop out, and for the [n] in essence to act as the vowel. (In phonetic terms, it becomes syllabic.) It’s a labor-saving technique: Instead of putting the tongue tip behind the teeth to make the [t] or [d], then dropping it to let the vowel pass through, and then putting it back up there to make the [n]; you just put it up there and leave it.

Again, though, what does this have to do with a missing T? With the insertion of a glottal stop, and the [n] turning syllabic, we end up with the sequence [ʔtn] at the end of the word. In this situation, the [t] can optionally drop out, leaving just [ʔn]. It’s not surprising that this might happen. To see why, I’ll walk through what has to happen in order to pronounce [ʔtn]:

  1. For the glottal stop, the vocal folds close tight, cutting off the airflow to the mouth. (Remember the first pate spectrogram?)
  2. To make the [t], the tongue tip has to contact the palate right behind the teeth. Also the vocal folds have to stop vibrating, but since they’ve shut tight to make the [ʔ], this is already taken care of.
  3. For the [n], the tongue tip is already where it needs to be. Two other things have to happen simultaneously. One is that the uvula, which has been parked up against the back wall of the mouth, has to lower, opening up the passage to the nose. The other is that the vocal folds have to start vibrating again.

If the silence of the glottal stop makes it hard to know when the tongue tip gets into position to make a [t] (as it did with the pate example), then who would ever know if it never showed up at all until it was time to make the [n]? All it would take would be for it to arrive a few milliseconds too late, and you’d end up with just [ʔn]. In fact, I still can’t tell for sure whether I pronounce Peyton as [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn]. I’ve put a spectrogram of me saying Peyton below, and the glottal stop, conveniently highlighted in orange again, is similar to the one in my pronunciation of pate: about 80 milliseconds of silence. You can also see that there’s no vowel between the [ʔ] and the [n]. The voicing stripes are there, and so are the dark horizontal bands (known as formants) but much fainter than they would be for a vowel. This is characteristic of a nasal consonant.

My ordinary pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of Peyton)

Maybe there’s also a [t] in there; maybe there’s not. But even if a listener can definitely tell that there’s no [t], this is such a common feature of American English that I couldn’t understand why someone would be complaining about it all of a sudden now, and for just this one population of speakers. I mean, it’s not bad English to pronounce Peyton as [pʰejtʰən], but it sounds a bit stilted and artificial, doesn’t it? Below is a spectrogram of this careful pronunciation of Peyton, and the link to the sound file. There’s no glottal stop here, just a 45-millisecond closure for the [t], followed by a slightly longer interval of voicelessness (noted as [h]), then a very short but visible and audible vowel before the [n].

My careful pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My careful pronunciation of Peyton)

So I finally got around to watching the news video, and when I did, I realized that people weren’t complaining about a glottalized-T-and-syllabic-N pronunciation; they were complaining about something that really was strange. There is indeed a glottal stop, and that’s not the strange part. And the actual [t] is missing; that’s not the weird part, either. The weird part is that the [n] doesn’t turn syllabic: The vowel before it stays! That is, they would pronounce Peyton not as [pʰejtʰən] or [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn], but as [pʰejʔən]. The spectrogram and sound file of me giving the “Utahan” pronunciation of Peyton are below. The glottal stop is a little on the short side, only about 60 milliseconds, but still a bit longer than my usual [t] closure. (Besides, I promise you, the tip of my tongue never touched the roof of my mouth until I said the [n]!) After it there is an unmistakable vowel, followed by the [n].

My weird pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My weird pronunciation of Peyton)

To me, this pronunciation is nuts! I first heard it on Dora the Explorer, when Dora was encouraging her audience to “push the buh-un”! This must have been near ten years ago, because it’s been a long time since Doug or Adam has watched Dora. Her pronunciation annoyed me, because the only reasons for the glottal stop to be there is if you’re going to say the [t], or if you’re going to do the [ʔtn]-reduction thing we talked about above.

Now as a linguist, I know this position is untenable. There are countless cases of some phonetic environment triggering a sound change, and then disappearing, like an icicle used as a murder weapon, leaving the sound change it caused as a puzzle for historical linguists to figure out. So why should this one be so weird? It shouldn’t, but speaking as an everyday user of English, I can tell you that it is, and I can totally understand the gut reaction of people who complain about it. I their real complaint is much like mine, but without the phonetic knowledge to put their finger on what’s going on, they seize upon the “missing T” — the [t] whose absence is hardly noticeable when an [n] comes immediately after, but which glares out when what remains is a glottal stop right next to a vowel.

So what about mountain, which I’ve ignored after mentioning it in the first paragraph? That’ll have to come in another post, along with names like Horton, Clinton, and Thornton (but not Easton, Ashton, Piketon, or Clapton). In the meantime, if you find yourself having to watch the Super Bowl and wondering how to stay entertained, maybe you could listen for glottal stops and missing T’s when the commentators Peyton Manning’s name!

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24 Responses to “Peyton Manning and the Missing T Formation”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    Ah yes, the “Dora the Explorer” glottalization, which explains the pronunciation of “Mittens” as [ˈmɪʔənz] in SNL’s “Dora” spoof “Maraka.” (Video link there is dead, but it’s now on Hulu here.)

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the link! I’d forgotten about that bit, but it’s great to be able to hear a spot-on Dora impression, “missing t” and all, without actually having to watch real Dora video clips.

  2. When I glottalize “t” I don’t put my tongue in position to say “t” (behind teeth). No point in that because the glottal “t” is a cheat to avoid that. The tongue then is left in lower or rest position. Then for “Payton” the “n” is not an alveolar “n” nor velar, but the tongue is still flat at rest position and the “n” is practically palatized. All the tongue wants to do is create an air dam so the “n” sound goes through the nose, and it figures out the easiest way to do it.

    I believe that many ending “t” s preceded by a vowel are glottalized in USA dialect. So the word “pate” would have a high probability of a glottal “t”.

    These are my thoughts. Nicely done article.

    • Neal said

      So it sounds like your pronunciation is like my ordinary pronunciation, except that where I merely suspect I might not be saying the [t], you’re sure you’re not. However, I don’t agree that glottalization is ALWAYS a way of avoiding the work of articulating a [t]. As I mentioned in the post, and as you mention here, many words ending in [t] are glottalized, but the [t] itself is only sometimes omitted.

  3. dw said

    Another possible pronunciation in words like “Peyton” is an alveolar stop with nasal release (in IPA, [pʰejtⁿn]). That is the one I myself would most likely use in normal conversation. One could easily imagine it becoming [pʰejʔn] over the generations.

    “This pronunciation is nuts”. Yes — but so many things about the English language are nuts :) The things we notice are those that go against the grain of the stereotypes we learned in our youth. Personally I find it almost impossible to listen to the show “Fresh Air” on NPR, because of the mismatch I perceive between the erudite tone of host Terri Gross and the extremely large amount of glottalization she uses, caught up close by the mikes. But that’s just me….

    • Neal said

      Funny you should mention this other pronunciation. Yes, you’re right: You don’t have to insert the glottal stop in order to get the nasal release (i.e. syllabic [n]). Despite this physical possibility, I’d still thought that only people who inserted the glottal stop did the syllabic [n] … until I learned someone very close to me was an exception. This post was too long to go into that, but I think a follow-up is in order…

  4. Jonathon said

    I’m a Utahn (and, coincidentally, am taking a class from David Eddington this semester), and I’ve always thought it a little weird that people complain about glottalized [t] in words like mountain. After all, I thought, doesn’t everyone do that except in careful speech? But suddenly everything makes sense. (And I find that pronunciation weird too.) Thanks for the explanation.

  5. Uly said

    I never heard Dora’s “button” pronunciation, but the few times I’ve watched it I’ve been more annoyed at how she says “Boots'” the same way she’d say “Boots”. It’s BootsIZ, honey!

    • Neal said

      I’m surprised I never noticed that one. (I assume you’re talking about the possessive form of Boots, right?) But did you ever see the one where they needed to use tape to repair a hot air balloon? They kept calling it “sticky tape”. What was up with that? Did they need to distinguish it from magnetic tape, or crime-scene tape?

      • Uly said

        Yes, the possessive. Drove me up the wall.

        And I don’t know what’s up with sticky tape either, but I guess they just aren’t allowed to say scotch tape on air or something. Google shows me that other people use that phrase, anyway.

  6. GPHemsley said

    Not sure if it matters, but the original voice of Dora is from Long Island. I’d have to hear the audio of her actually saying “button”, but I don’t think the interglottal (yes, I just made that word up) is a usual pronunciation here. Certainly not like it is in London, anyway.

  7. The Ridger said

    That is strange. I usually say his name with the glottal stop and syllabic N (and I say it fairly often, being a big fan), but at times a carefuller Pay-ton. I don’t think I could just swap the glottal for the T.

    • Neal said

      Interesting … I’d’ve said “swap the T for the glottal” — i.e. “swap [OLD] for [NEW]“. I’ve had a draft post going on this kind of thing.

  8. Herb said

    I suspect this pronunciation is more widespread than just Utah. A few years ago when I was working on fortis and lenis obstruents in English, I heard things like /maw?@n/ frequently among younger Indiana speakers, both male and female. I heard it more, I think, in Midlands and Northern speakers than in Southern.

    Nicely done, Neal.

    Herb

  9. Alex said

    In your normal pronunciation of “pate”, you still release the t at the end. Is it true that for many English speakers, you never hear the t at all and you end in just a glottal stop? The same goes for words like “let” and “rate”.

    • Neal said

      Quite true, and even true for me at times. I haven’t tried to study when I release word-final stops and when I don’t, though. It’s very likely to happen before another stop, though. For example, my ordinary pronunciation of football is something like [fUʔbal].

  10. Tom said

    After reading your blog post today, I noticed my two year old says “Mountain” with something more or less like maun-tIn (very bad transcription, I’m sure). I’m pretty sure my wife and I, being typical Americans, don’t usually pronounce the “t” or the “I”, which raises the question: how does she learn that this sound is a “t”?

    • Neal said

      That is an interesting question. Listen for how she says other words with [t] or [d] followed by vowel and [n], with and without preceding [r] or [n]. I’d be interested in hearing what you find out.

      • Tom said

        I’ll try. I’m having trouble coming up with one I know is in her vocabulary though… I did a little grep through my American English wordlist to help me out and then tried looking for words with relevance in her 2-year-old world. So far my list of words she’s somewhat likely to know is: mitten, button and Boston. We’ll see if I can listen closely next time one of those topics comes up!

      • Tom said

        Serendipity! A button fell of my coat today, which gave me the occasion to hear this sentence:

        Daddy button fall off!

        Button was pronounced “Buh-tin” with the “t” clearly articulated. Needless to say, it’s not pronounced this way in our dialect. We say “buh?nnn” (rather than mixing up my transcription, I’ve reverted to a simplified version, but I think you’ll understand me. There is no “h” in the above–I’m just using it to show the vowel sound as in textbook pronunciation guides everywhere).

      • Neal said

        Great catch! Chance favors the prepared mind, as they say.

  11. douglas said

    just a armchair linguist web surfer who found your blog, and this post, by chance. your analysis is fascinating. i am dying for a similar analysis of all the different pronunciations of the word SOMETHING, which vary depending on so many factors, ranging from the full “dictionary” pronunciation to the extremely oversimplified “su?mmm” (my lame attempt at showing how i sometimes reduce “something” to nothing….no pun intended! sometimes what seems like a p sneaks into the word, as well) you can often hear this pronunciation in phrases like “Tell me su?mmm…where’d you learn to speak English so well?!”

    please write an article on “something” sometime :)

  12. David Walker said

    Isn’t this common in parts of Britain? I have heard British commentators talking about the famous rock group “the Bee-uhls” many times.

  13. cięcie wodą…

    [...]Peyton Manning and the Missing T Formation « Literal-Minded[...]…

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