Thursday 9 June 2011

Glottal stops (and other stuff) yet again!

I’ve found a video on YouTube of an English teacher called Richard answering the question “What is a glottal stop and when is it used in English?” put to him by one of his students. After introducing some technical terms, Richard provides simple examples of the possible use of the glottal plosive in English: the word cat, he says, can be pronounced both as kæt and kæʔ, and but as bʌt and bʌʔ. So far, so good.

At some point towards the end of the clip (04.27), though, he states that

“in informal speech the /t/ sound is often replaced with the glottal stop when the /t/ sound is at the end of a syllable and the sound before the /t/ sound is a stressed vowel sound, or a syllabic /l/, /m/ and /n/ sound and the next syllable or word begins with a consonant sound.”

Before syllabic /l/, /m/ and /n/? In informal speech? What language is he talking about? And did you notice how he pronounced the adjective syllabic? ˈsɪləbɪk. I must admit it is the first time I’ve heard this type of pronunciation!

And here’s another example he furnishes:

It’s pointless becomes it’s poinʔless because a glottal stop replaces the /t/ sound after the ˈsɪləbɪk /n/.”

What? The /n/ in ˈpɔɪnʔləs is NOT syllabic!!! And that’s sɪˈlæbɪk, NOT ˈsɪləbɪk! ARRRRGH!

Quite connected with the above is the pronunciation used by BBC reporter Raphael Rowe. According to information provided by the BBC, Raphael

“was born and brought up in south-east London and he joined the BBC in 2001 as a reporter for the radio news programme, Today. His tone, style and accent was different to that normally heard on the flagship programme and caused an immediate stir amongst the Traditional Radio 4 audience. But Raphael’s path to becoming a reporter has been unique and remarkable indeed. [...] Through his singular background, and as the first person of mixed race to report for Today, the Six O’Clock News and now Panorama, Raphael has helped re-write the rules on what makes a BBC reporter.”

Here’s a video in which Raphael introduces himself and talks about what it’s like working at Panorama. Notice how he produces glottal stops in getting, bottom, curiosity, reporters, presenters and democratic. This is of course admitted in his accent but not (yet) in RP.

Finally, here’s a short video of the Panorama programme Track My Trash, broadcast last Sunday night on BBC World News and on Monday on BBC One. As I was watching the programme, I couldn’t help noticing Raphael’s realization of gathering as ˈɡævərɪŋ (at 00.04 in the clip) and of thumb pronounced as fʌm (00.53, 0056). These are clear examples of th-fronting, a phonetic effect typical of the broad accent of London.

Also, if my memory serves me well, he regularly pronounced system as ˈsɪstɪm rather than the more common and (at least for me) less old-fashioned ˈsɪstəm.


  1. @Alex_R:
    Phonetics doesn#t seem to be Richard's bag.
    Maybe, he uses syllabic in the sense of 'belonging to the same syllable.

    Kraut (sorry, couldn't sign in for unknown reason)

  2. TH-fronting makes me sad. It seems to presage the inevitable death of dental fricatives in the south of England. And innovations from south England seem to be picked up widely by other British and southern hemisphere accents.

    My hope is that /θ, ð/ will survive in North America.

  3. Glottal stops occur as an allophone of /k/ in similar positions as well. "Back" and "bat" can be almost homophones for some people. It is quick common to use a glottal stop in "backwards".

    For some reason, this never attracts the same attention as t-glottalling. It's very weird which features of speech English people pick up on.

  4. @Ed:

    I think that t-glottalling attracts most attention in intervocalic position, as in "butter". I don't think that k-glottalling occurs readily in that position.