Two of our listeners wrote in recently to ask about a speech pattern they’d noticed: the habit of people dropping the T-sound in words like “Putin” or “mitten.” They wondered if this was a regional dialect, a generational one, or something else.
Here’s what we discovered.
The phenomenon itself is known as “T-glottalization.” It occurs when a speaker swallows the T sound in a word rather than speaking it aloud. We hear it when words like “kitten” and “water” are pronounced like “KIH-en” and “WAH-er.”
Let’s talk about how this happens, and whether we should expect more of it.
How does T-glottalization happen?
First of all, glottalization is a normal thing that people do when they talk. It occurs when our vocal folds come together to stop the flow of air and then suddenly open. If you say “uh-oh,” a glottal stop occurs right after the “uh” and before the “oh.” Try it. You’ll feel a tightness in your throat when you say “uh” that is released when you say “oh.” That’s a glottal stop. (1)
We do this all the time without realizing it. For example, instead of carefully telling your friend “I can’t jump very high,” with an emphasis on the T in “can’t,” you might say “I CANH jump very high.” Instead of saying “start your engines,” with a hard T at the end of “start,” you might say “STARH your engines.”
Without getting into too many linguistic details, we do this because it’s hard to aspirate certain consonants when they fall at the end of a word. We aspirate the P at the beginning of “purse” all day long, but we swallow it at the end of “stop.” We aspirate the T at the beginning of “toy,” but swallow it at the end at the end of “hot.”
T-glottalization stands out when the T is dropped in the middle of words
T-glottalization tends to be more noticeable when it happens in the middle of a word.
For example, a hallmark of British Cockney speech is dropping T’s in the middle of words. Instead of “getting a bottle of water,” you might be “GEH-ing a BAH-l of WAH-er.” Instead of “waiting for a letter,” you might be “WAY-ing for a LEH-er.” (2, 8)
Notice that the T is always dropped on the non-stressed syllable in a word. Take the word “potato.” There are two T-sounds. If you were glottalizing the word, you’d do it on the second T, which falls in the non-stressed syllable (the last one): “po-TAY-oh.”
If you were fully pronouncing the T’s in those words, your tongue would touch the roof of your mouth and the T-sound would pop out with a puff of air. That’s called “aspiration.” Try it by saying “water,” and make sure you pronounce the T. You can feel your tongue touch the very front of your mouth, and a little puff of air that accompanies the T.
Now try glottalizing it, without emphasizing the T in the middle: “WAH-er.” You can feel your tongue hovering right in the middle of your mouth instead.
Is T-glottalization in American speech increasing?
The T-glottalization that our readers wrote in about wasn’t heard in Britain. It was heard in the United States. What’s the deal with that?
Our guest writer for this post, Samantha Enslen, says that she’s noticed this happening more and more over the past 10 years. She lives in Dayton, Ohio, and says that people regularly pronounce the city as “DAY-unh,” instead of “DAY-ton.” She’s also noticed her teenagers pronouncing words like “important” and “butter” as “im-POR-unh” and “BUH-er.”
And it seems that Sam isn’t the only person noticing this. A study in the journal “American Speech,” examining the dialect of Vermonters, noted that some traditional pronunciations were disappearing — “KEY-ow” for “cow,” for example is declining— but that the dropping T’s is increasing. The researcher spotted it in pronunciations like “MOUN-ain” for “mountain,” and “ver-MONH” for “Vermont.” (3,4)
In another study, conducted in the western United States, researchers found that young female speakers were more likely to use glottal stops than other groups they studied. (5, 6)
The researchers suggested their findings may indicate that a broader change in pronunciation is afoot. They note that “the literature on sociolinguistic change … is replete with studies in which young women are on the cutting edge of language change.”
That’s no surprise to people who borrowed phrases like “as if” and “way harsh” from movies like “Clueless” and “Legally Blonde.”
Why is T-glottalization happening?
In answer to the biggest question of all — why are people dropping their T’s? — we have a disappointing answer. Nobody really knows. (6)
Standard pronunciation across a region, even a country, changes gradually and is affected by countless untold causes. In the 400 years since English settlers first came to North America, what we call a “British accent” morphed into an “American accent.” And that accent, in turn, birthed countless others, from the distinct dialects we hear in New York City and Dallas to the ones we hear in New Orleans and Minneapolis. (7)
T-glottalization can sound grating or slangy to some listeners today. But someday, it may be the way all of us speak. And by that time, no doubt, there will be yet another new pronunciation tic that’s driving everyone to distraction.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “Glottal stop.” Subscription only. Accessed April 18, 2019.
- Shariatmadari, David. “Why have we got it in for the glottal stop?” The Guardian, April 30, 2015.
- Roberts, Julie. “As Old Becomes New: Glottalization in Vermont.” American Speech, Vol. 81, No. 3, 2006.
- Peterson, Britt. “Why are young Vermon’ers dropping their t’s?” Boston Globe, November 22, 2015.
- Eddington, David, and Taylor, Michael. “T-Glottalization in American Englishopens PDF file .” American Speech, Vol. 84, No. 3, 2009.
- Yagoda, Ben. “That Way They Talk II.” The Chronical of Higher Education. March 12, 2012.
- Soniak, Matt. “When did Americans lose their British Accents?” Mental Floss, January 17, 2012.
- English Pronunciation Roadmap. “What is a Glottal Stop?”