Thursday, 12 March 2009

A glottal stop is different from zero

Masaki Taniguchi tells me that he was seeking advice at the computer help desk at UCL when the IT person told him to click on the stɑː button, or so he thought. But he couldn’t see any star button. What had happened was that he had failed to notice the glottal stop after the vowel: it was not the stɑː button but the stɑːʔ button (start button) that was wanted.
This is a nice example of the phonological function of the glottal stop in English, serving to distinguish words that might otherwise sound the same. The glottal stop, although consisting of no more than a silence, contrasts with its own absence. (OK, it may be more an effect on the phonation of the end of the vowel than just an instant of silence, but the point is the same.)
ˈstɑː bʌʔn = star button
ˈstɑːʔ bʌʔn = start button
Not all English people use a glottal stop at the end of start before another consonant. Nevertheless it is unusual to have an exploded t. If it’s not glottal it’s likely to be assimilated to the following bilabial, producing an unexploded, indeed unreleased, thus ˈstɑːp̚ bʌʔn.

Worse, if he had been listening to an American rather than a Londoner, the ˈstɑːp̚ bʌʔn would have been not the start button but the stop button.
ˈstɑːp̚ bʌʔn = start button (BrE), stop button (AmE)
Pity the poor EFL learner. It is difficult to discriminate auditorily between unreleased stops at the bilabial, alveolar, velar and glottal places.

But it's not just those learning English. Those of us who are not native speakers of Cantonese find it very hard to hear the difference between final p, t, k, all unreleased, in that language. (Hong Kong airport is called Chek Lap Kok, and each syllable ends in an unreleased/glottallized final consonant.)


  1. " ˈstɑːʔ bʌʔn = stop button (AmE)"

    It does? I suppose it must in some kinds of AmE. I'm always learning something new.

    Speaking for myself, I say both [ˈstɑːp̚ bʌʔn] and [ˈstɑːp̚ bʌtn̩]for "stop button," but I don't ever begin the phrase with [ˈstɑːʔ]. On the other hand, non-rhotic New Yorkers would be likely to say [stɑːʔ bʌʔn] for "start button."

    "Pity the poor EFL learner." Indeed. I generally make an effort to over-pronounce plosives slightly when conversing with EFL speakers; also to slow down. It makes communication easier for both parties.

    I still remember how surprised I was to learn that some types of assimilation that are stigmatized in the US might pass without comment in RP. But then, I'm an RPFL speaker.

  2. Which leads to the question...RPFL?

  3. I'm guessing that RPFL = Received Pronunciation as a Foreign Language. Amy Stoller seems to be a native AmE (= American English) speaker, so RP is a 'foreign language' to her. Of course, this is all in jest, as we are talking about varieties of the same language, not different languages.

    When among North Americans, I usually speak a somewhat RP-influenced variety of General American (GA), and I wouldn't really draw out that vowel in 'stop'. Generally, I wouldn't lengthen the LOT vowel (at least in certain environments), so I do distinguish the LOT and PALM vowels as [ɑ] and [ɑː] respectively even when speaking GA. I'm pretty sure that at least some other GA speakers maintain this difference. But I do see that for others the vowels may be completely merged, even in quantity, and it seems that vowel lengths don't really tend to be distinguished consistently in GA anyway.

    So yeah, I would never say [ˈstɑːʔ bʌʔn] for 'stop button' in my version of AmE, but I can believe that some speakers of AmE would say that.

  4. @Amy et al.: sorry, my mistake, now corrected. I meant an unexploded p.

  5. Many EFL teachers don't go far to explain all these details: they don't even mention about fricativization of stops; glottalization of heavy stops; and so on. Once the students are imparted with this knowledge, they can right away recognize what is heard.

    Charles Bailey points out in his article, how the tempo can change glottalization.

    "In slow tempos, one hears [cˀ] in axe and [pˀ] in cops; In faster tempos, glottalization is replaced by release. Note, however, that where interconsonantal //t// is replaced by length in
    acts ['æcˀːs] and Copts ['kʰapˀːs] can sound like axe and cops (although in yet faster tempos acts and copts can sound like axe and cops)."

  6. John, your entirely unnecessary apology is accepted! Thank you for clarifying what you meant - I confess I'm relieved.

    @Jongseong, "I'm guessing that RPFL = Received Pronunciation as a Foreign Language. Amy Stoller seems to be a native AmE (= American English) speaker, so RP is a 'foreign language' to her. Of course, this is all in jest, as we are talking about varieties of the same language, not different languages."

    Yes, I did mean "Received Pronunciation as a Foreign Language," with tongue (no pun intended) in cheek. RP is an accent, of course, not a dialect. And I am a native speaker of AmE, but fluent in BrE.

    (My point of view, at least when teaching, is that BrE and AmE are different, albeit closely related languages, rather than varieties of the same language, mais chacun à son goût.)

    As a matter of perhaps incidental interest, I find that many of my American English-as-a-first-language (E1L? ENL?) clients are astonished to discover that glottal stops are part of their personal phonemic inventories. (This isn't true for all, but for nearly all). Also that they are H-droppers (only in weak forms of monosyllabic function words, but still). They are as astonished as M. Jourdain when he discovers "I have been speaking prose all my life, without knowing it!"

    @blaoism, how right you are about EFL teachers not addressing the details of pronunciation. To be fair, I imagine they are not often given the opportunity, if they have to teach according to a schedule, and especially if they teach large group classes.

    (I should probably make it clear that I don't teach EFL. I am an accent and dialect coach, so when I speak of my EFL clients, I am describing their relationship to the English language, not the service I provide for them. My job is to guide them in the details of pronunciation; usually of AmE, occasionally of BrE.)

  7. I actually experienced this situation, the I.T. person was rather surprised that I couldn't see any "star" button on my screen.

    Unfortunately, even as a native speaker of Cantonese, I sometimes find final unreleased k and t rather hard to distinguish, which I think is due to realization of velar consonants as alveolar consonants, especially amongs the youngsters(and alas, I am one of them.)

    A rather basic question:
    Are final unreleased k and t different from glottal stop? Could /lai?/ be a possible pronunciation for both /laik/ and /lait/, "like" and "light"?


  8. Kevin: Indeed. The Sinitic languages represent a continuum in their treatment of Middle Chinese -p -t -k. In Standard Cantonese, they are all distinct; in more northerly varieties, there is either a two-way distinction -p -? or a single final stop -? (as in Shanghainese), until we reach Mandarin where there are, of course, no final stops at all.