65: Uh-oh! The glottal stop in place of /t/

What is a glottal stop and when do Americans use it?


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 65th episode.

I apologize that this podcast is late. Sadly, my grandmother passed away last week, and I traveled to Wisconsin to see my family. Grandma Dorothy, her lovely smile and big laugh will be greatly missed by all.

Before I start talking about the t sound today, I want to mention a couple of other things. First, if you haven't been to the forums yet, you should go and check them out. They are free to join and you can post any question about pronunciation or English in general. You can also leave comments and suggestions there. A lot of interesting questions have been asked in the past few weeks. Go ahead and take a look!

Also, I'm looking for iTunes reviews again. Nobody cares if you make a grammar error in a review; people just want to know what you think. If you are too shy to write a review, you can now just click the stars and give your opinion that way. It's really a nice way to help me out and show your support for this podcast. Next time you open iTunes to download all your new podcasts, go to this show's page and offer your opinion.

Now, on to the letter t.

Let's explore the third kind of trouble this seemingly simple letter creates. We've already talked about the t being pronounced as a d sound when it follows a vowel or an r sound and comes before a vowel, r sound, or l sound. Then we explored how the t is usually not pronounced at all when the t comes between an n sound and a vowel, r sound or l sound. This happens in the word identity. Go to episodes 61 and 63 for more information about those t sound rules.

Vowels, the r sound, l sound, and n sound are not finished causing us to adjust the t sound yet, though. And now we can add the m sound to the mix of troublemakers as well. Welcome to the glottal stop. The glottal stop is the sound in the middle of the word uh-uh. It is kind of a non-sound sound. I can't create a glottal stop by itself; it needs sounds around it or it doesn't sound like anything at all. Listen to uh-oh. Uh-oh. Do you hear that stop in the middle? Uh-oh.

A glottal stop occurs when the vocal folds are briefly closed. This can be a very difficult action to force because the vocal folds are way down in our throats. It is also really difficult to feel a glottal stop when it happens. When I teach the glottal stop in class, I work up to creating words.


Say the word oh-oh. Can you do it? Uh-oh.

Now try replacing the oh with an n sound. It will sound like uh-n. Can you do that? uh-n.

Now add a b sound to the beginning of the word. Button. Can you do that? Button.


That is how we say the word button, b-u-t-t-o-n. Now, I want to also note that I am not adding any vowel between the glottal stop and the n sound, even though there is an o spelled there. That is called a syllabic n, and I'm not going to get into it today, although there was a question about it on the forums if you want to know more.

A few of my students can learn the glottal stop almost immediately, and they find they can apply it whenever they want. Most of my students, however, need to practice quite a bit with an activity like we just did before they can do it. A very few of my students come to me already using a glottal stop like we commonly do in the United States, and most of those people never knew they were doing it. I haven't noticed any patterns between languages that naturally do this, ones that learn it easily, and ones that have a very hard time. It seems to be very individualistic.

Lets do the activity again.


Say uh-oh.

Replace the oh with an n sound, uh-n

Now add a b to the beginning, button.

Now you've got the word button. Button.


The glottal stop is also the sound I am saying in the word partner, gotten, and written. The glottal stop will happen when the t comes after a vowel or r sound, and before an n sound or an m sound.

I have to admit, If you learn in the same way as I do, just hearing all of these details in a podcast is not really all that helpful. I need to see it in order to remember which sounds cause a d sound, omission of the t sound, or a glottal stop. If you are the same way, go to the transcripts for this page and click the link to the t sound rules. There are very simple diagrams to help you see the difference between all of these circumstances. If you are a subscriber, you can link to the exercises and have additional audio practice.

Unfortunately, most dictionaries still do not show the glottal stop in their phonetic transcriptions. I actually find this quite surprising, because the audio on the Merriam Webster site clearly uses the glottal stop in my example words above. The transcription, that's the place where they show you how to pronounce the word, still shows a t sound, however. I've linked to these words from the transcripts as well, so you can hear someone other than me demonstrate the glottal stop.

Let me repeat the rules for the glottal stop again, then we'll practice a bit. The glottal stop occurs in place of a t sound when the t follows a vowel or r sound and comes before an n sound or m sound.

Repeat these examples after me.




So how important is the glottal stop for pronunciation? I'd say it depends on where you live and how you are using English. If you live in North America, I think it's a good idea to give this a lot of practice. I say that because this is the t sound substitution that is the most used, and it would sound severely odd to hear a native speaker always say a t sound in place of the glottal stop. Omission of the t sound or substituting a d sound is much more about personal preference, but the glottal stop isn't. Sorry.

If you live anywhere else that uses English as a native language, you need to listen to see if the dialect around you does this. Americans and British, for instance, have completely different rules surrounding the t sound.

If you only use English for international business meetings and many of the other speakers are also non-native speakers, this can be a pretty low priority for you. You want to assess the level of English of the others you are speaking to and decide if it is appropriate for you or not.

Let's go back and practice those words one more time.




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That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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