Glottal stop

Jamie Oliver glottalizes. So do American young women. How come?

A couple of days ago, I posted in Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education Language blog I contribute to, a post about American glottal stop. A slightly edited version of it is below, followed by some additional thoughts.

The post:

If you associate with American females in the age range of roughly 15-25, or if you are one yourself, I bet you have heard the word important pronounced in roughly this way: imPOR-unh.

I first started noticing this among my students a half-dozen years ago. My first thought was, why are young Mid-Atlantic Americans glottal stopping?–the glottal stop being a consonant-swallowing vocalization found many places around the world but most famously in the British Isles. You can hear it in your mind’s ear if you think of Stanley Holloway singing “With a lih-ill bi’ o’ luck” in My Fair Lady or one of the Beatles saying, well, “Bea-ulls.”

Glottalization, especially on the t sound in the middle and at the end of words, has traditionally been associated with working-class Cockney, Liverpudlian and Glaswegian, but in an interesting recent development (since the 1980s, in any case) it has migrated upward socially, as a prominent feature of so-called Estuary English. This is a manner of speech favored by the middle-class youth of the greater London area, sometimes referred to as “Mockney.” For classic examples of Estuary, listen to the comedian Ricky Gervais or the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; not 30 seconds will go by without at least one glottal stop. (Jamie, especially, also goes in for another notable feature, pronouncing th as f–“I’m firty-free years old.”) Here is Gervais emceeing last year’s Golden Globes; note the way he says settled and variety.

But how did glottal stop make its way to 20-year-old New Jerseyans? Since I have a strange fascination with the many British expressions, as witness my blog Not One-Off Britishisms, I was tempted to view this as another example of the phenomenon. But that doesn’t wash. The Britishisms I chart on the blog are driven by the chattering classes; glottalization clearly springs from a very different segment of society.

When I looked into the scholarship, I found it unhelpful. As the authors of one recent (2009) study note, “While there is an abundant literature on t-glottalization in the United Kingdom, investigation into the linguistic, geographic, and social factors that influence it in American English is in its infancy.” True that. They themselves tested just 58 speakers and found, not surprisingly, that t-glottalization was most common among the young and females. For reasons I don’t completely understand, only two-word combinations were tested–foot away, street outside, right ankle, etc.–not what appear to me to be the most common and noteworthy examples, single words like important, Clinton or button.

There are actually four possible pronunciations of the middle t sound in those words. British “received pronunciation” would give it a hard t. Americans only do that when the final consonant is stressed–pretend, return. Otherwise, we traditionally employ the “syllabic n,” in which the t is pronounced as t, but the subsequent syllable as a sort of vowel-less n. I recall in 1992 that northerners were instructed that the correct pronunciation isn’t Clin-ton but rather Clint-‘n.

Next, there is “flapping,” which Americans favor especially when the final syllable doesn’t end with n; thus, we say latter as ladder and city as siddy. Then there’s the new kid on the block, glottal stop. Getting back to the 2009 study I mentioned, an even more significant shortcoming is that none of the 58 participants was African-American. I say that because my observation is that the main manifestations of glottalization in popular culture are the expression “Oh no she dih-ent” (which originated, I think, as a ritualized audience response on The Maury Povich Show) and many, many rap songs. Glottalization has long been a characteristic of the form, at least as long ago as 1991, when Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Do You Want Me.” In the clip below, (at about the 21-second mark), the male singer raps, “You gotta let me know suh-‘en.”

In the popular music sphere, at least, glottalization has crossed racial lines. Last year the (white female) singer Kesha released a song called “My First Kiss.” Listen to the way she glottalizes little.

As Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out to me, the particular word is a surprising candidate for vocalization in not ending with an n; thus Kesha is glottalizing on a Jamie Oliver level.

I am left, in any event, with the observation that t-glottalization is rapidly spreading among young white female Americans, and the hypothesis that it came to them via an African-American style. How that style came about and how the transfer happened, I don’t know.

Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

Additional thoughts: I had two reactions to the comments on the Lingua Franca post. Number one, linguists are rightfully concerned about the cataclysmic consequences of anyone without a PhD in the field commenting on language matters. I don’t know what came over me. Number two (and more seriously), a couple of the commenters proposed that t-glottalization in words that end with “n” (Manhattan, button), is a fairly long-time New York vocal characteristic. I am inclined to go along with that, and suspect that both the prevalence of glottalization in rap music and in my students stems from this regional pronunciation.

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50 responses to “Glottal stop

  1. One-off (presumably) Aside: Early in this post, there is mention of “…Stanley Holloway singing ‘With a lih-ill bi’ o’ luck’ in My Fair Lady….”
    This is “pledge week” on PBS. One program used by my local station to raise funds this year is a concert by Adele (http://artistsden.com/adele/), the British songbird who recently won five Grammys. During one of the pledge breaks, one of the hosts observed that the British seem to lose their accents when they sing. Perhaps Adele and others do, but certainly not in the case cited above.

    • Adopting American accents is a long tradition among British singers of a certain ilk who think it makes them sound cool – or perhaps they’re just mimicking a US musical style – it even goes back to The Beatles (“she loves you yeah yeah yeah”).

  2. This is an interesting post. I agree with your final thoughts that this phenomenon goes further back than you initially stated. I’m from New York (upstate, not downstate), but most of my friends are not. They cross the socio-economic/generational divide and definitely do NOT insert the “t” in “important”. I wouldn’t call it a glottal stop though, as I think we all get close to pronouncing the “t” but if you listen hard enough, it’s not actually there. Maybe it’s just my ears, but if I heard someone actually pronouncing the first “t”, it would be akin to hearing someone pronouncing the ‘t’ sounds in ‘pretty’ and ‘city’ – like hyper-pronunciation (I think there might be a linguistic term for that). However, I do say “Clinton” with a “t”, but I drop them in “button”. Though I would argue I say button so fast, you would think I do insert the “t”s, and I think, like “important”, that’s what’s really happening – you can get away with glottal stops if you say them fast enough so that no one catches you. They tend to stand out more for those with a slower speech cadence.

    • Just about everybody I’ve known throughout my life, including myself, slurs their words. The only ones I recall actually pronouncing all their “t”s have been performers in the arts, e.g., poets and opera singers. Whenever I would try pronouncing all my words distinctly, however fast or slow, my ex-wife would accuse me of being uppity.
      Aside: In grammar school, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Slagle, taught us how to pronounce “wh” (as in what, where, when), by blowing or breathing out the “w”, as if the “h” precedes it. Still, practically everybody pronounces it as if the “h” weren’t there at all. Indeed, in the television commercial I saw for the first time last evening, for a popular snack cracker, two cartoon characters are having a debate about it, going back and forth, with one pronouncing with the “h” and the other without. .

      • Agreed, Hal. I think with performers (i.e., professional singers of opera and broadway) the focus has to be on enunciation in order to ensure that the words travel well over big spaces so you have to hyper-pronounce most words which, if spoken, would just sound strange and affected to probably 90% of native English speakers. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find news presenters who didn’t partake of some good old glottal stoppage too. Well, maybe not Diane Sawyer or the Dimbleby brothers, but you get the point. I went through a stage of pronouncing the “t” in pretty, but realized I only did this around a particular posh friend from London as that’s what she did and it was quite infectious. However, I caught myself doing it do much, thought I sounded like Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz and forced myself back to “priddy” :)

      • I remember a teacher at school (in England) pointing out how I, with my Scots accent, said “wheel”, “when”, “why”, etc., whereas the local Leeds accent (and all other English ones) produced “weel”, “wen” and “wy”. “Wh” is a compound sound of the English language, he said, like “ch”, “sh” and “th”. He said that was the unfailing sign of a Scots accent. Right! I still say “wheel”, but that is no longer a feature of Scots accents except amongst Gaelic speakers and a few other teuchters (people from remote Highland areas). The “h” is now dropped in combination with “w”, as it is in England.

        “Wh” is still well pronounced in most of Wales, but then Wales is where you can hear English best spoken, I reckon, especially by native Welsh speakers, who carry into English the clear, sharp, zingy vowel purity of the “language of heaven”. In contrast, English English has only one vowel: “euh”.

    • That’s what a glottal stop on a t is: pronouncing it so fast it gets swallowed. I speak like that – a bit of a random mix of Estuary English & West Country English (look this one up but if you have ever seen Tim Team with Tim Robinson the long haired chap).

      We have a nice saying that: “I duhn say wa’eh like I or’eh” – or more correctly “I don’t say water like I ought to”.

      If I slow down my speech it’s harder to glottal stop & basically I only speak with a softer Y! It’s weird.

  3. Oh no you dih’ent.

  4. The explanation is simple: what American doesn’t want to sound like Michael Caine? See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFIQIpC5_wY

    Even Michael Caine wants to sound like Michael Caine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX0F3kY3uxU&feature=related

    • Which is funny because no-one wants to sound like him here (it’s a sub-london, working class accent) – definitely not something to aspire to here.

      • It;s apparently a magnitude more grating in the affectated syllables than Ricky Gervais’ accent. And, as an entertainer, Adele needs that ostensible American affectation to assist her lyrics and genre-style.

        As an aside:
        I;m actually from NJ, USA; 18 years old; originating from Middlesex County (centrally located) — one of the many epicentres of Indian immigration (chiefly) on the east coast. I believe the glottal-stop easily, perhaps, even substantially permeated their English pronunciations (wherefore it was so imbued into their English-language affectations, I am not certain).

        I actually use the glottal-stop, specifically, and it may well be that it is a low to upper-middle-class accent/affectation. Though I sound mad ghetto when I try and enunciate in any comfortable manner, aside from narrative writing.

        Coincidentally, to affect any true fashion of low-class central-Jersey speech, you have to pronounce the ‘mad’ in the phrase ‘mad ghetto’ a bit like: MAE-(glottal-stop) GHETT-o.

        Also, on reflection, it may be interesting to note the quirks in phonology that seem relatively prolific in the varying dialects of Mid-, sometimes East-, Asia.

  5. When I attended college (central Maryland in the mid-’70s), you could identify all the kids from the PIttsburgh area because they all spoke with a glottal stop.

  6. The ‘firty-free’ for thirty-three has always been a feature of Cockney speech, but Estuary English is playing it down or losing it completely. In the 50s and 60s Bill Cotton, an old-style big-band leader, used to make fun of this with his song ‘Forty fahsund fevvers on a frush’ (Forty thousand feathers on a thrush).

  7. I’ve always glottal stopped the t’s in words ending in ‘n’ (e.g., Latin, button) and ‘nt’ (important, latent). I grew up near Los Angeles, California in the 70’s and early 80’s, my parents are lifelong Californians, and my grandparents originated in the Midwest (Missouri, Illinois) and Utah. After reading your post, I suspect that early Mormon pioneers from New York and its environs must have brought t-glottalization West with them.

  8. I was born & raised in NYC; I’m in my 60’s now. Aunts, uncles, cousins on my mom’s side were all born & raised in Queens & all tossed around glottal stops with nary a thought. My dad was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, and though his grammar was poor, he never glottal-stopped. I glottal stopped like most of my family, but didn’t pick up most of the other pronunciation tics they had (e.g., “sammich” for sandwich.) When we moved to Florida & I was in 11th grade, my drama class was learning to do a Scottish dialect. We had to say, “A little bottle of metal polish” with GSs in 3 of the words. My rendition was quick & impressive –my learning curve was zero. My great-grandparents were immigrants from Ireland & London. I’m sure that’s where our glottal stops came from.

  9. This is certainly not only a New York phenomenon. I was struck by the near-ubiquity of glottal stops among middle-aged coworkers when I first worked in Connecticut.

  10. One Americanism that isn’t gaining headway over here is the not-quite-glottalisation which changes “tt” to “dd”, i.e. “boddle” for “bottle”. Over here, it’s just “bo-ul”. Also, I’ve yet to hear Americans using the (commonly East London/Cockney) trick of changing an ending “g” to a “k” (usually accompanied by changing “th” to “f”): “Something” becomes “Summfink”

    • They used to do that a lot in Liverpool… before the glottal stops became common

    • I’ve never found Americans, other than Native Americans, to do a proper glottal stop, they always sound a “D” or a faint “T” and put their tongue to the roof of their mouth/behind their front teeth, neither do they let the glottis make a noise from the glottal stop “like a “uh” sound without any aide from the rest of the mouth/vocal chords” and instead make a noise with their tongue (roof of mouth – front teeth as said before). So no, I wouldn’t say they have a glottal stop at all, not a proper Glottal Stop where it is just opening the mouth and letting the Glottis make a sound, I Don’t think Americans can do it…hard enough?

      Glottal Stops are also much rarer, and even where they are common, it’s not as used as in the British Isles. I.E, I’m from Leeds, England (West Yorkshire) and it’s common to say “ci-eh” for “city”, glottal stopping the “T” completely, I’ve never heard that anywhere in the US, ever. So the “Glottal stop” substitute the US use isn’t near as widespread and or common in the US as it is in the British Isles, and even where it is “common” in relative terms for the US, they still don’t use it in as many words, places etc. as we do in the British Isles, i.e only a few times is a glottal stop implemented, whereas it’s practically every possible time you can in the BI.

    • Ricky Gervais says “sommot”, instead of ‘somewhat’. I wonder how common that is (I’m assuming in the London-wise area)

      • It should be noted that Ricky Gervais does not speak with a London accent. I would have guessed “Thames Valley” even before checking (as I just have) and learning that he grew up in Reading (60+ miles west of the capital). It’s true that the influence of “Estuary English” now easily reaches that far out, and his speech (especially the t-glottalization) does show clear signs of that fact. However, overall his intonation, vowel quality, and even faint rhotacism at times, place him well west of London. Reading is, after all, halfway to Bristol.

  11. Speaking ‘Mockney’ means you’re putting on a Cockney/Estuary accent. Jamie Oliver really does speak like that – he’s an Essex boy.

    • Agreed. ‘Mockney’ is a portmanteau of ‘mock’ and ‘Cockney’. Affecting a Cockney accent, often for the purposes of hiding one’s middle class (in the British sense) roots.

  12. I grew up on the Canadian border, and I’ve always glottalized all my Ts. A white vanilla farming hamlet, too, so I doubt there’s any African-American influence in that — it would be simply impossible. I’m also trained in musical performance, so while I enunciate when singing, I don’t when speaking.

  13. A thing that really annoys me about English speech (I’m Scottish) is that when a glottal stop is properly called-for, as between a word that ends in a vowel and one that begins with a vowel the English insert an an r sound. It sounds awful especially when used with a person’s name. Thus two British Olympians, Jessica Ennis and Nicola Abbot were referred to by BBC commentators as Jessica Rennis and Nicola Rabbot. Gross!

    • Are you sure that isn;t just an exception for words ending in ‘a’? I find that really interesting, but I’ve only heard that particular thing in examples ending with the ‘ah’ vowl sound. It sounds more complicated… maybe there;s like nicolerr abbot, or, as in your example, Jessica Rabbot as well

    • A great example of that is on Paul McCartney’s new CD of standards where, during “Accentuate The Positive”, he sings “…Jone-err in the whale, No-err in the Ark…” – and it’s not something subtle either!

  14. IMPORTANT ( not impor’int.)

    I notice a lot of TV female news commentators saying “impor’int” story coming next. It drives me nuts. It sounds uneducated to me, unless you are Michael Caine. And that is on TV. I don’t notice the GS as much with male commentators.

    I have heard young Harvard grads insert the glottal stop. They probably got it from watching too much TV.

    I am a sixty year old former english major and retired lawyer, who plays modern electric violin and guitar styles, and some jazz and bluegrass. My ears must be sensitive.

    • It sounds uneducated to us too… I think it’s one of those examples where people pick things up unconsciously rather than put it on as an affectation, at least I can’t imagine someone consciously wanting to appear uneducated.

      • I;ve always thought that the soft ‘t’ sound at the end of words was part of normal pronounciation. It;s not always a glottal stop as in ‘IMPOR- -int’

  15. I have been noticing/complaining about this for some time. I hadn’t really thought of it as being British until you brought up Ricky Gervais. But here in the States, there is the sketch comedy show MadTV that had the characters Melina and Lida, who were stereotyped New York City Puerto Rican girls. But this stereotype has been around much longer than that. It is only in the past five years that I have noticed creeping into many teenagers’ vocabulary in Ohio and California. Even the singer Pink does it in her song “Walk Of Shame” on her new CD, but it’s more tongue-in-cheek. It still drives me crazy though – like the overuse of the word “basically”.

  16. Often used in the UK to try and claim some kind of working-class roots, as in the case of Ricky Gervais and Jamie Oliver. Presumably they feel it gives them a credibility they would otherwise lack. Can’t imagine why…

  17. I listen to a lot of public radio here in the US, and they often have young people of Hispanic, Black and Native American backgrounds talking about some issue or other.

    I first noticed the glottal stop being used there (especially “impor’unt” or “impor’int” or “impor’nt”), and tended to associate it with those cultures, or with lack of education or lower social strata in general.

    Then, later, I started hearing people of those same backgrounds, but with advanced college degrees and in important positions (government bodies, researchers, etc) using the same glottal stops – and I asked myself “Shouldn’t they have learned NOT to do that after their long years at institutions of higher education surrounded by people who spoke more clearly?” I guess the answer to that is “no.”

    Finally, as mentioned in your original post, I have noticed in the last 5-10 years that this pronunciation quirk is becoming common among everyone (or at least middle-class-ish people of the general population), and is not so associated with certain socioeconomic backgrounds; and I, too, wonder how that happened. Today, I just called up the support line for “Cateye” (a company that makes bicycle headlights and other things), and the young woman on the recording repeated at me “Your call is impor’unt to us, so please wait until an agent can help you…”

    I don’t know why, but it makes me sad that nobody seems concerned that this glottalization of words is becoming such a common way of speaking. :-(

    – Tim

  18. Before syllabic “n” (e.g. gluten, button, Clinton), t-glottalization is more common in the US than in Britain.

    In Britain, although, such glottalization is current in Cockney and some other varieties, it would not be expected from someone reading the news. In the US, it is heard all the time (especially on NPR!!).

  19. I say “important” with a glottal stop (“import’n”). I don’t see it mentioned here, but I’ve noticed many people, mostly young, pronounce it “impordant” – flapping the t, I guess you’d call it. Is this a new pronunciation on the rise or is it isolated to certain regions in the US?

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  21. Tim (not the previous one!)

    The glottal stop in England seems to be more widely used than ever. It’s associated with “cockney”, or working class Londoners but in the last few decades it has spread. It is now called “Estuary English”, which relates to the urban sprawl along the Thames river. What’s most pernicious about this pronounciation is the way it is obliterating other regional accents. You regularly hear English northerners now using it who have their own rich local ways of speaking..Personally I hate it.

    • It’s gotta be the cosmopolitan culture– the TV sub-culture specifically. Estuary English isn’t as repulsive as it should be– it seems like, from across the water, stereotyping has ingrained itself in the British culture, an occurrence that forgoes what is considered ‘en Vogue’ of your culture (recently). I remember someone saying, in passing, that “America is like Britain’s ‘little cousin’ ” It vexes me how both of our cosmopolitan cultures are steeped in this outlandish ‘wacky-ness’.

      • Not much to be done about it! still, I I find it interesting that the glottal stop is common in both English and Americ an English but they can be slightly different. I was watching a youtube interview with the contemporary American artist Brice Marden who pronounced the word “painting” as ” pay-ning”, whereas the English version with the swallowed T would sound more like “payn-ing” with a slight gap and more explosive second syllable.

      • Yes, it’s common, so there’s a mite of a difference. I can’t imagine whether that gap should sound familiar in American English. I know there are a fair bit of regional pronunciations in England.

        It’s funny, I might never have cared to observe the classifications of that variety, although, categorically, I can spontaneously produce a number of them pretty well; my TV-brain is like a sponge. I’m very peevish.

        *insert long-winded Ab Fab impression*

        British sitcom writers are a hoot. Sorry for the non-sequitur. I’m only slightly interested in the quirks of pronunciation. Have a bit of a ‘fit of blog commenting’ now and again.

      • I’ve just seen on TV a Welsh rugby player flattened by half a ton of Argentinian beef, get up, grimace and get on with it. Now that’s what I call a Britishism.

  22. I have a feeling I have heard Obama refer to the Russian leader as Poo’n. But perhaps there is a faint ghost of a t.

    In the UK Jamie or Ricky would say Poo’in. Almost anyone else would sound the t: Poo-Tin.

  23. Do you get c-glottalisation and nc-glottalisation in the US? I mean pronunciation such as in British TV soap opera, East Enders, in which most of the other characters refer to a character named Bianca as Bee-an-ah, or even glottalising the n, too: Bee-ah-ah. Or the cockney pronunciation of wanker: wah-ah.

  24. Glottal stops aren’t British… They’re only unique to certain British words like cockney “little”, which is liddle in American, but button has ALWAYS been glottalized in American, same with important, it didn’t come from Britain. British people mostly always pronounce the middle t in important, and even aspirate it. Even a hundred years ago button in American was buh’n.

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  27. Here in Britain the use of glottal stops has increased significantly, even by professional TV announcers- the younger ones, as you would expect! It is now used at the start of words such as “and” and “in” in almost Germanic fashion. Even The Beatles didn’t do that after they’d played in Hamburg.

  28. I’m American and grew up an Army brat, so I’ve moved around the county a bit. I’d say my accent is a combination of all the regions I’ve lived. I’m also a 27-year-old college educated white female. I’ve always pronounced important as “impor-ent”, button as “buh-en”, etc. When I think of pronouncing the t’s in the middle of words, I immediately think of a British accent. As in, I would pronounce British as “Brid-ish”, and to me, British people would put a hard emphasis on the T. It has always been more common to me to hear a British person pronouncing the t’s rather than an American.

  29. I’m a 60yo native New Yorker, and I can attest that the kind of glottalization you’re describing has been around for generations. Even things like “bah-uhl” (for bottle) were commonplace among older people in NYC when I was a child, and equally so among my peers; so much so that my Mother was constantly correcting me, because she considered it low-class. I still say “impor-nt” (no second syllable vowel); to say it any other way would feel pretentious to me.

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