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Will Styler

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow - University of Michigan Linguistics

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2007. See all posts

The glottal stop: your new Phonetic Phriend

Today, I'd like to talk about a sound that most English speakers don't notice even though we use it every day: The Glottal Stop

The Glottal Stop is a unique consonant present in many languages around the world. It's often represented as a lone ' (as in "Hawai'i") or as a question mark (?), but its official IPA symbol looks like this:

What do Mittens and Hawaii have in common?

Let's look at the name of the state of Hawaii. The "proper" (native) pronunciation of the state's name is "huh-WHY-ee", rather than "huh-WHY" or "huh-WHYYY".

Say the correct version slowly. The sort of "catch" in your throat between the "WHY" and the "ee" is our phonetic phriend, the glottal stop. In the IPA, Hawaii is written as (/həwaɪʔi:/), with the glottal stop showing up in all its glory.

Sometimes, you'll see Hawaii written with a turned comma (ʻ) in the place of the glottal stop ("Hawaiʻi")1 to show that, but really, the glottal stop is unmarked 90% of the time in English.

Another place where the glottal stop makes an appearance in many dialects of English is in the words "mitten" or "button". Say those words carefully, and you'll notice that where we have a "tt", there's actually a glottal stop, not any sort of T sound. In the IPA, when I pronounce these words, they're transcribed as /mɪʔn/ and /bʌʔn/ (with the n's as their own syllables). Contrast this with "bitter" (which is actually an alveolar tap, not a t) or "mitts" (which has a true t), and you'll see through the English writing system's weave of deception.

You'll also find this sound in expressions like "Uh-oh" and between many words ("new attack"). The glottal stop will also show up from time to time in English phrases replacing a t if you're listening closely.

Whatcha gonna do with all those glottal stops, all those glottal stops inside your speech?

I'm mildly ashamed to use this as an example, but in the Black Eyed Peas song "My Humps", the chorus is filled with glottal stops. I'll transcribe (broadly) a bit of the chorus (from 00:13 in the above video on) below:

Look at that transcription and try to note the different glottal stops in the singers speech. They're going to make make make you surprised, make you surprised at how many glottal stops are in our everyday speech.

What's our throat catching, anyways?

Take a look at this picture of the human vocal folds (courtesy of Wikipedia):


Our glottis (the phonetic term for the vocal folds/vocal cords) is composed of two pieces of tissue that move together and apart during speech, and vibrate rapidly to create voicing. Those pieces of tissue can be moved a great deal, and even brought all the way together.

Hold your breath with your mouth and nose opened. You'll feel a pressure build up below your throat, and you'll probably be able to feel exactly where the air is stopped. That closure is the vocal folds, and what you're doing now is holding a glottal stop. In order to make a glottal stop in speech, we just pull those two pieces of tissue all the way together until they make a seal, and then release it again. That's it. No tongue, no voicing, no nasal worries. Just close the glottis. Easy, huh?

Glottal stops in other languages

Glottal stops are common in English, but they're not really phonemic (meaning that they don't generally contrast with other sounds). If I say "mitten" using a full on T, people will understand you, but just think you're strange. They're even more common in British English, and in some Cockney dialects, they're really omnipresent ("then, la'er, my dau'er 'it me").
However, in other languages, they can carry a very distinct contrast. In Hawai'ian and Samoan, they're phonemic, and can show up anywhere. /ʔika/ and /ika/ miɡht be entirely different words even though speakers of many languages can't tell the difference. No matter how I've tried, I still can't quite hear this difference. English speakers love our word-initial glottal stops (at the beginning of words), so I hear them most of the time, and have trouble starting a word without them.

Similarly, there are other languages where /kaʔ/ and /ka/ would be completely different. Once again, English speakers (and speakers of many other Indo-european languages) have lots of trouble with this contrast.

Reader, meet Glottal Stop

So, now that you know it's out there, I suspect you'll be hearing glottal stops in lots of places. Once you do, you and the glottal stop will certainly become phast phonetic phriends.

  1. Thanks to an astute commenter who pointed out that the proper Hawaiian representation of the Glottal Stop is actually a turned comma, rather than an apostrophe as I had erroneously stated.