Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Glottal stops’ Category

Flappin’ Shit

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2018

A few years ago, I blogged about hearing some English speakers pronouncing their /t/’s as glottal stops in an unexpected place: after a stressed vowel, before an /h/. Some of the examples I talked about were a local public radio news reporter’s pronunciation of Statehouse,and Doug’s pronunciation of pothole. Another example, which I thought I’d blogged about but apparently hadn’t, is Doug’s pronunciation of warthog, which is different from the others in that there’s an /r/ between the vowel and /t/. But they’re all similar in that I would personally pronounce the /t/ as a flap [ɾ] in these words, and I heard other speakers using a glottal stop [ʔ].

Last week, I happened to think of another word with a /t/ between a stressed vowel and an /h/. It was shithole! For me, the /t/ in this word is pronounced as a flap, just like in Statehouse, pothole, and warthog: shi[ɾ]hole.

But the events of last week’s news cycle naturally got me to wondering: How are other people pronouncing shithole these days? With a flap, like me? As shi[t]hole, with an ordinary [t]–shi[t]hole? Or maybe even as shi[ʔ]hole with a glottal stop?

In this montage of newscasters reporting on Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and (some?) African countries, I hear mostly shi[ɾ]hole, with a few shi[t]holes thrown in. No glottal-stop shi[ʔ]holes.

I also searched for shithole in YouGlish, this website I learned about in the course of teaching English pronunciation to my international students. You search for your word, and it brings you video clips of people saying that word in real contexts. Their four entries for shithole all use the flap pronunciation. (In unrelated findings, all eight of their clips of coup de grace pronounce it as if it were coup de gras.)

Among the family and friends I asked, the flapped pronunciation is also the most common. I was even surprised to find that this was the pronunciation that Doug used, when I asked him to repeat this word of the week. I wonder how he pronounces pothole, butthole, and warthog now…

Three people in my sample of 14 used the [t] pronunciation. One is a co-worker who later mentioned that he thought of shithole as two words: shit hole.

I did find two speakers with glottal-stop shithole. One was one of my in-laws, and the other was one of Doug’s floormates in his dorm. That’s right: He’s a freshman in college now, and when I called him with my linguistic question, he gave me his answer and offered to pass the phone around to the other residents in the room, and one by one they got on the line and said “shithole” to me.

UPDATE, Feb. 5, 2018

When I tweeted this post, Michael Covarrubias (@wishydog) responded, “i hear your flap and /h/. i hear a lot of glottal stops in the video. apparently, my /t/ is a glottal stop very often.” So I went back for another listen. It turns out I listened too quickly the first time. On closer inspection, and with the use of the phonetics software Praat, I have segmented out 57 tokens of shithole (or a related form, such as the plural, or the derived form shitholer), and of them, eight have the glottal stop pronunciation, for 14%. Seven tokens have the [t] pronunciation, making 12.3%. Tokens with a flap make up the remaining 73.7%.

I labeled each token impressionistically by hear, but then also examined their spectrograms using Praat, labeling the duration of the air stoppage for the /t/, doing my best to separate it from the pronunciation of the /h/. Sometimes I had to give up. I also tried to record whether the /t/ and following /h/ were voiced or not, but sometimes had to give up on this, too. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to the data, you can find the WAV file, accompanying Praat text grid, and a spreadsheet with the data for each of the 57 tokens in a Google Drive folder I’ve named the Vice Shithole Corpus.


Posted in Doug, Flap (tap), Glottal stops, Politics, Taboo | Leave a Comment »

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.)

Posted in Glottal stops, Ohioana, Phonaesthemes | 10 Comments »

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!

Posted in Glottal stops, Phonetics and phonology, Sports | 26 Comments »