Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

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9 Responses to “Unexpected Glottal Stops”

  1. I’ve listened closely to my own AE pronunciation; the only environment where [t] becomes [ʔ] is before a semivowel (nitwit, that year) or a syllabic [n] (button, gotten, certain), Before syllabic [l] and [m], or any unstressed vowel, my [t] becomes a flap [ɾ] (metal, bottom, petty). Almost everywhere else. [t] remains [t] for me; although I sometimes use a flap [ɾ] in phrases like get off or sit up, the [t] reappears when I’m being careful or emphatic.

    How common is the pattern I described, Neil, in your experience?

  2. palavering2u said

    Someone recently told me that I say tweny instead of twenty. I now listen to others and many do the same thing. It seems to be quite common.

    • Neal said

      I definitely do that, although it’s more like “twunny.” The pattern is general: /nt/ between a stressed and an unstressed vowel will turn into just [n], or a nasalized tap, just like /t/ will turn into a tap in that same environment, at least in my dialect of American English.

      • palavering2u said

        Thank you for the reply, Neal. Are you an educated linguist, or is our AmerEnglish just a hobby for you? You use linguistic and grammatical terms with which I am completely unfamiliar. When I am in doubt, I usually turn to Bryan Garner’s English Word Usage. He’s a prescriptionist, but I suppose that I am, too. Again, thank you for your kind and informative reply. Bill

      • I use a nasalized flap for an /nt/ in the environments you describe, Neal; it’s not quite [n] and not quite [ɾ], but somewhere in-between. (In my dialect, twenty doesn’t rhyme with funny or even with penny; the last two words have an ordinary [n], not a flap of any kind.

  3. The pronunciation [bʌʔhɛd] sounds completely normal to me, while [bʌɾhɛd] sounds rather strange; I’m not sure I’ve actually heard someone flap a /t/ in that environment before. It makes me think of a former coworker of mine who says [bʌɾən] for button instead of [bʌʔn].

  4. AJ said

    You know we Brits love the glottal stop (or glo’al stop, as we say!) so it’s nice to see it being used in the States. Listening to different British accents I note that us folks from the South West tend to use a double ‘d’ sound where others use a glottal stop in words like “better’ (i.e. “bedder” rather than “be’er”). We’ll also say “twenny” for 20 where lots of other Brits will say “twen’E” [apologies for my lack of knowledge re. correct linguistic gizmoids to indicate pronunciation].

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