Friday 20 May 2011

Britain and its glottal stops

Yesterday’s conference at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia (see my blog for last week) was fun and entertaining. Both students and lecturers welcomed me warmly and listened with interest to what I had to say about RP and its changes. They all paid close attention to phenomena like smoothings, compressions, CURE lowering, yod coalescence, GOAT allophony, T voicing, and R sandhi.

Halfway through the seminar, though, most of the students and teachers present became incredulous and greatly surprised when I explained that in current RP the pronunciation of t in words like Britain tends to vary a lot. As my readers will know, some speakers realize the sound as alveolar t (not many, I think); others produce a glottal stop, ʔ: thus ˈbrɪtn̩ vs ˈbrɪʔn̩. Here t and ʔ are said to be in free variation, since the realisation of one allophone rather than the other appears to be a matter of pure chance.

To prove that this is true, here are two video clips from the BBC in which you can hear Nicholas Witchell, BBC News royal correspondent, pronounce Britain only with glottal stop:

i) listen here at 00.13, 00.15, and 03.24; and

ii) here at 00.52 and 01.17.

Here’s another video, with BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, in which Britain is realised as ˈbrɪʔn̩ (at about 00.15 seconds and 01.38 minutes into the clip), and Brighton is ˈbraɪʔn̩ (at 01.45 and 02.14).

And finally, here’s the Queen’s speech in Ireland in full, in which at around 06.01 one can hear her pronounce written as ˈrɪʔn̩.

The fact that both the Queen and not-so-young BBC correspondents like the ones mentioned above all use glottal replacement before syllabic nasals (also read here) is clear evidence that this phenomenon has been in RP for many years now and that it’s not a “new” pronunciation, as some people still claim.

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In other news, Arnold Zwicky, Visiting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Ohio State University, has recently posted a huge list of popular language blogs and web resources on his Arnold Zwicky’s Blog. And I’m extremely pleased to say that he included this blog, too. Thanks very much, Arnold!


  1. Listen to how native speakers from both the UK and the USA pronounce 'Britain' on FORVO:

  2. Alex,

    I was astonished to read that Queen Elizabeth has become a 'glottalising royal'. I listened to the section of her speech several times and I can't make up my mind whether it's a /t/ or a glottal stop plus a syllabic /n/. The two don't differ much, do they, except for the fact that a /t/ would sound a bit brighter than a glottal plosive

  3. I think you're right, Kraut. It may be that the syllabicity of the /n̩/ segment "obscures" the pronunciation of the /t/. The latter, though, is definitely not alveolar, as in very traditional RP.

  4. I'm afraid I really can't agree with you about that /t/ not being alveolar, Alex. Even if there were glottal closure that would be perfectly compatible with simultaneous alveolar articulation, but I hear no glottal closure at all. What I hear is what you would expect to hear from the Queen, namely an alveolar /t/ nasally exploded into the syllabic /n/. And it was not because I expected to hear it that I did hear it! I followed your link with great expectations of yet another example of the Queen going with the flow, and was as disappointed not to hear it as an all-expectant twitcher not hearing the first cuckoo. Because that's what it would have been for me, but I hear cuckoos are in decline. It may never come now.

  5. I would usually use /t/ with nassal release in "Britain". Are you sure you aren't confusing that with the glottal stop?

  6. The realization of the Queen's "written" in the video is definitely not like these two pronunciations provided in the OALD (which I would have expected from someone like her):

  7. I listened to Nicholas Witchell's clip at 00:13 and 00:15 (after that I tried to fast forward through the video and it crashed -- can't the BBC get some decent technology?)

    Both Witchell's utterances of "Britain" feature alveolar /t/ with nasal release: they are NOT glottal stops. In IPA, they are [ˈbɹɪtⁿn̥], NOT [ˈbɹɪʔn̥]. I would expect to hear the latter from Cockney or North American accents, not from RP-ish TV newsreaders.

    Wikipedia has a bit about nasal release here. John Wells covers nasal release here, but unfortunately in a different context (over word boundaries).

  8. @Alex Rotatori:

    The recorded BrE pronunciation at sounds like [ˈɹɪtən]. The AmE pronunciation is almost identical: [ˈɹɪtɪn] This is somewhat perverse, as the written IPA given is ˈrɪtn, presumably with syllabic nasal!

    I am pretty sure many British speakers, and almost all North Americans, would only use these realizations in formal speech.

  9. VP, you're right about the transcriptions of "written" in the OALD, but remember that that's NOT a pronunciation dictionary. So, for the sake of simplicity, some realizations (for instance, syllabic consonants) were not included by Michael Ashby.
    As far as glottal stops are concerned, they are NOT just confined to Cockney or North American accents. BBC newsreaders use them a lot, too.
    For more on the variability between [ˈbrɪtn̩] vs [ˈbrɪʔn̩], have a look at "Practical Phonetics and Phonology" (2008; p.71) by Collins and Mees.
    Also, listen to how Prime Minister David Cameron pronounces the placename "Sutton" in my blog entitled "Liʔle Briʔain" (and that is pretty much a very formal occasion!)

  10. As far as glottal stops are concerned, they are NOT just confined to Cockney or North American accents. BBC newsreaders use them a lot, too.

    I'm sure that BBC newsreaders use glottal stops plentifully for word-final or pre-obstruent /t/. I would not expect to hear them replacing /t/ before syllabic [n], though. (I have lived outside the UK for over a decade so please do show me that I'm wrong!)

    Also, listen to how Prime Minister David Cameron pronounces the placename "Sutton" in my blog entitled "Liʔle Briʔain" (and that is pretty much a very formal occasion!)

    Yes: that one sounds like a glottal stop. I guess glottalization is part of the "big society", or perhaps Cameron is trying to show what a man-of-the-people he is by randomly deploying Londonisms in his speech. (Bizarrely, the next sentence has "What is it?" with released /t/).

    I would still hope that someone reading the news like that on the BBC would be sacked, though!

  11. And then, of course, there's fricative /t/. No idea how that would be represented in IPA, though.