Dropping T's in words like "kitten," "Vermont" and "important" is a normal speech pattern, and there's even a name for it: T-glottalization!
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.