American glottal conspiracy?

33The usual story is that Americans don’t pronounce /t/ as a glottal stop [ʔ] except under very restricted circumstances: chiefly, not before a vowel.

So it’s okay, in General American accents, to pronounce /t/ as a glottal stop before an onset consonant, as in Sco[ʔ]land. And it’s okay before a syllabic /n/, as in cer[ʔn̩]. (Actually, in both those contexts the tongue can make a [t]-closure as well, in which case what you have is glottal reinforcement rather than just a glottal stop.)

But it’s not considered okay to pronounce /t/ as a glottal stop before a vowel, as in city or not only. These are the classic environments for American ‘flapping’ (or tapping): pronouncing /t/ as a rapid, /d/-like flick of the tongue, for which the IPA symbol is [ɾ], e.g. ci[ɾ]y, no[ɾ]only. If you pronounce these /t/’s as glottal stops, you get something that’s widely felt to be British-sounding. Millions in England and Scotland do it. Word-internally, as in ci[ʔ]y, it’s perceived as not very standard; word-finally, as in no[ʔ]only, it’s by now pretty standard, as I discuss in my English After RP.

Although this kind of description is found all over the internet, for some years a rise has been noticed in young Americans pronouncing /t/ as glottal stop before vowels. There are antecedents in New York City and African American English, but I’ve heard it from younger speakers who seem otherwise General American.

Here I want to consider two processes by which American pre-vowel glottal /t/ may arise. The two processes seem to be more or less opposites of each other. And when different processes end up producing the same result, phonologists have sometimes termed this a conspiracy.

So how are some young Americans conspiring to pronounce /t/ as glottal stop before a vowel?

Process 1: Unpacking of syllabic /n/

The unpacking of syllabic /n/ means turning a single sound [n̩] into a sequence of a weak vowel plus [n]. This is widespread in Britain. For years now, younger SSB speakers have been opting to pronounce words like certain and important not as cer[tn̩] and impor[tn̩t] but as cer[tən] and impor[tənt]. Again, this is discussed in English After RP.

The same unpacking can be heard from some younger Americans. Remember that these words are ones in which the /t/ before the syllabic /n/ can be a glottal stop, e.g. cer[ʔn̩]. The key thing is that the speakers in question can leave the glottal stop intact even when they unpack the syllabic /n/. The result is cer[ʔən], or cer[ʔɨn] or cer[ʔɪn]. Whichever weak vowel you choose, the result is the same: an American glottal /t/ before a vowel.

Here’s a young YouTuber in a video on rhythm and meter in rap, saying with cer[ʔ]ain rhythmic emphasis:

In Albuquerque not long ago, I heard examples including these from a young New Mexican tour guide:

co[ʔɨ]nwood (cottonwood)
off the bea[ʔɨ]n track (beaten)
George R. R. Mar[ʔɨ]n (Martin)

Process 2: Reanalysis of hard attack

For quite a while, younger speakers of English seem to have been using more ‘hard attack’ in their speech. This refers to the use of glottal stop to begin a word-initial vowel, especially in running speech. It’s a basic property of German, which is why heavily German-accented English can produce utterances like [ʔ]I [ʔ]always [ʔ]arrive [ʔ]early [ʔ]in the [ʔ]afternoon. English speakers don’t do it as much as that, but I think they do it more than they used to (perhaps with younger female Americans leading the way and others on both sides of the Atlantic catching up); yes, it’s in English After RP.

Hard attack naturally blocks regular flapping. Let’s say a speaker chooses to say not only with hard attack on only. This gives not [ʔ]only: the /t/ is no longer before a vowel, and this prevents the regular flapped version, no[ɾ]only. So the more a speaker uses hard attack, the less /t/-flapping they use. Our YouTube rapper uses quite a lot of hard attack, e.g. rhythmic [ʔ]emphasis in the previous clip, and three tutorial [ʔ]episodes [ʔ]already:

Now here’s a hard attack after final /t/, in get a teleprompter:

He makes a visible tongue articulation for the final /t/ of get at 0:12, so this is ge[t ʔ]a teleprompter.

But that tongue articulation can disappear. After all, if glottal stop is consonantal rather than vocalic, it shouldn’t be surprising if some speakers use glottal /t/ before it, as they can before consonants more generally, e.g. before /l/ in Sco[ʔl]and. This would give us no[ʔ ʔ]only or ge[ʔ ʔ]a teleprompter. My guess is that this glottal stoppage between vowels comes to be analysed as simply /t/. Hey presto – another American glottal /t/ before a vowel. Here from our YouTuber is the way tha[ʔ]I make these videos:

My Albuquerque tour guide especially liked to do this before on:

no[ʔ]on the tour
sho[ʔ]on stage
selling i[ʔ]on eBay
(He also said prou[ʔ]of it. Final /t/ and /d/ can be neutralized before a vowel in GenAm.)

And here’s another YouTuber (discussing video frame rate) who has glottal /t/’s before vowels as well as phrase-finally, and plenty of hard attack. The words are So [ʔ]in [ʔ]order to ge[ʔ]a true 24 frames per second with that nice cinematic motion blur that the [ʔ]eye would see, you’re going to double your frame ra[ʔ].

To conclude, this looks to me rather like American pre-vowel glottal /t/ arising in two virtually opposite ways. In one case, a pre-consonantal glottal /t/ finds itself before a vowel. In the other case, a pre-vocalic glottal stop turns into a /t/.



10 replies
  1. Bob Rodes
    Bob Rodes says:

    I began noticing this myself in the early aughts among people in their teens and 20s. A most interesting analysis.

  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I am GOBSMACKED at how quickly this glottal shift has occurred. I think everybody who knows me well knows that it’s my top pet peeve (and I’m someone who collects them), and I’m just amazed that more writing hasn’t been done on the subject. I think I first took note of the uptick in t-glottalization around 2012, and it was more apparent then because it was already becoming widespread in the U.S. – here in Canada, I’m only now beginning to see it with that same frequency nearly a decade later. It sounds so very strange to my ear, and it’s incredible that a majority of young people (let’s say under 40) seem to have embraced the shift without even consciously realizing it.

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      It sounded very odd to me at first, but now it’s too common for that, certainly on YouTube. I enjoy the Action Lab channel, and the presenter (not sure where he grew up but he has a PhD from Brigham Young) uses it constantly.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. DJ
    DJ says:

    Really cool analysis Mr Lindsay.

    Notwithstanding this … the “conspiracy” part or “But it’s not considered okay to pronounce /t/ as a glottal stop before a vowel” is simply a case of the linguists being slow and senile and “GA” English (General American sounds kinda stupid as everybody has an accent, this myth has been debunked a while ago) just developing however it wants with a bunch of glottal stops and t-glottal stops abounding. It’s not that new by the way, in the 2000s it was already obvious (but admittedly not as prevalent as nowadays).

    Keep up the good work boss.

  4. J C
    J C says:

    Very interesting analysis, thanks! I’ve also noticed the glottalization of the middle “d” in “didn’t” a huge amount in recent years among young people; have you examined this one somewhere?

  5. Cheryl Junkin
    Cheryl Junkin says:

    Interesting! Thank you for your analysis.
    This glottalization is a pet peeve of mine. I try not to judge because I know it’s the nature of speech to change but it seems to be devolving instead of evolving.
    Perhaps I’m turning into a crotchety old lady!
    Thank you again. I’m looking forward to the video on this subject.

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