The Gloʔal Whaʔ – A Pronunciation Guide to the Glottal Stop.



The glottal stop is a very common sound in British English; you’ve definitely heard it even if you haven’t heard of it. How often a native speaker uses it depends on their accent and how fast they are speaking. All the glottal stops in this article are in red, so let’s make a start, then.


How to Pronounce a Glottal Stop [ʔ]

A glottal stop is made by closing the flow of air in the throat (glottis). Effectively, it is a short pause with no air being released at all, so it’s easiest to hear it within words:

You’ll hear from these examples that the glottal stop tends to appear where there is a /t/, though it is also possible as /p/ and /k/ – it largely depends on the accent of the speaker.


When to Pronounce a Glottal Stop

A glottal stop is often pronounced in standard GB English when /t/ ends a syllable and the next sound is a consonant:

rightly   witness   Scotland   Britpop   hitman

This happens in words and between them:

it was   that thing   cat flap   right side   shot stopper

GB English speakers may also use a glottal stop for /p/ and /k/ if the next sound is made in the same place of the mouth:

stop me   background   top buy

It should be noted though, for all the examples above, that when a speaker is producing very clear, slow speech, the glottal stop might not be used:

Scotland   cat flap   background


Glottal Stops in English Accents

Possibly the most notable feature of the glottal stop is the inconsistent way native speakers use it. It is difficult to give a rule for any particular accent because everybody from Cockneys in East London to the Royal Family in Buckingham Palace will use it differently and a little bit randomly in their speech.

Cockney

Cockney speakers love glottal stops, they use them for /t/, /p/ and /k/:

Blackboard   daughter   waiting   stop it   tricky

Note that in cockney the glottal stop is used before unstressed vowel sounds – this is one of the most recognisable features of a cockney accent, but is considered by many not to be acceptable in standard pronunciation.

Estuary & Other Regional Accents

Estuary speakers are somewhere between GB and cockney, and their glottal stop usage reflects this. They would use a glottal stop for /t/ in all the places GB speakers do, but they would also use them at the end of a word even when followed by a vowel sound:

that isn’t right   it’s hot   I didn’t   there’s not a lot of money

This usage of a glottal stop before vowel sounds isn’t confined to London, it‘s pretty common in loads of regional English accents, like in Manchester. In Bristol you’ll hear it as well, we don’t say the ‘t’s at the end normally.

Posh Accents

Old fashioned posh speakers might find the glottal stop sounds incorrect to their ears and so they might not think they use it at all for /t/. But they do sometimes, especially when /t/ is followed by a consonant sound. See, I just did it then, and again then. In fact even the poshest of all speakers, Her Majesty The Queen likes the occasional dabble¹:

Modern posh is a bit more relaxed, so you’ll certainly hear younger speakers using glottal stops all the time before consonant sounds and occasionally before vowel sounds too. Have a listen to Prince William, who could be crowned ‘king of the glottal stop’ one day:

“I certainly don’t lie awake waiting or hoping for it because it sadly means that my family have moved on and I don’t want that.”²

¹ From Queen Elisabeth’s address to the nation in 1997.
²From a BBC Interview in 2016 (view full interview here). 


Tottenham Court Road

One of the hardest London underground stations for second language English speakers to pronounce is ‘Tottenham Court Road’ – it’s all those ‘t’s that make it difficult, so the appropriate use of a glottal stop can make it a lot easier. The way to simplify it is to break it into syllables:

1. [tɒʔ] 2. [nəm] 3. [kɔːʔ] 4. [rəʊd]


Other Uses of Glottal Stops

Although the glottal stop is most noticeable when it replaces /t/, it is also widely used before a stressed vowel sound to add emphasis:

although [ʔɔːˈðəʊ]   go over [gəʊ ˈʔəʊvə]   reentry [riːˈʔentri]

This extends to connected speech where some speakers might use a linking /r/ sound, others put a glottal stop:

pour onto [pɔː ˈʔɒntu] instead of /pɔːr ˈɒntu/
fire engine [ˈfʌɪə ʔenʒɪn] instead of /ˈfaɪər enʒɪn/
extra energy [ekstrə ˈʔenədʒi] instead of /ekstrər ˈenədʒi/


Advice for Learners of English

The glottal stop is not a separate sound (phoneme) in English, so you don’t need to use it in order to produce the entire range of English vocabulary. It is, however, a very distinguishable feature of English accents, so learners who are aiming to produce British pronunciation in connected speech need to know how and when to produce it.

By | 2018-04-28T09:07:49+00:00 April 25th, 2018|Pronunciation, Pronunciation Guides|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Pedro April 28, 2018 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Love this article. I’ve always been a great fan of glottal stops.

  2. Francesco April 28, 2018 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Great article, as always

  3. Oxana Olarou April 28, 2018 at 9:18 am - Reply

    Greate article. Thank you.

  4. Penny April 28, 2018 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Thanks! I’ve shared your great article with my students in Finland.

    One little question, though. Isn’t “hit man” an example of assimilation /hɪpmæn/ rather than a glottal stop? Or does that also depend on regional accents? How are they different (assimilation and glottal stop)?

    • Joseph Hudson April 30, 2018 at 8:49 am - Reply

      There are different ways of explaining the way /t/ joins to other consonant sounds. If the next sound is one of /p,b,m/ then you could represent the /t/ as an unreleased /p/ so /ˈhɪpmæn/.

      

In practice, even if this happens, a speaker is likely to put a glottal stop before the /p/, so it would be [ˈhɪʔp̚mæn]. 

It can be fun to explore these with students – BAPMAN vs BATMAN, HEARTBURN vs HARP BURN, HOT PRESS vs HOP PRESS, with each pair pronounced identically in connected speech if you use the unreleased /p/.

      These assimilations can happen in any accent, particularly in fast connected speech. The glottal stop is one possible assimilation of /t/, and is also found in sequences that are assimilations of /t/ like the one above.

  5. Pascal April 28, 2018 at 10:37 am - Reply

    Loved that second to last piece about linking /r/ sounds. I noticed that in my own speech but wasn’t even sure if it’s correct. This helped a lot!

    • Joseph Hudson April 30, 2018 at 8:54 am - Reply

      Thanks! I’m glad to hear it’s helped. Actually, you have one in your comment there “SURE IF”! Linking /r/ is so widespread now, I think the debate about whether it’s correct is over. There are a few places left where people aren’t sure though – in words like PAWING – does that sound the same as POURING when you say it?

  6. Abdulbaki A Ahmad April 28, 2018 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Thanks for the good work. That’s one aspect I admire about British English and indeed I’ve learned from the article!

  7. Tony Bittner April 28, 2018 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Excellent article on the use of the glottal stop. I loved the phonemic/allophonic transcriptions and the audio samples.

  8. matilda cubas April 28, 2018 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    Great. Thanks a lot.

  9. Nel April 30, 2018 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much, I’ve enjoyed the Royal Family examples!!!

  10. ZHIVKAZH May 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    A great article! Extremely helpful!

Leave A Comment