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That Way They Talk II

Jamie Oliver glottalizes. So do American young women. How come?

If you associate with American females in the age range of roughly 15-25, or if you are one yourself, I bet you have heard the word important pronounced in roughly this way: imPOR-unh.

I first started noticing this among my students a half-dozen years ago. My first thought was, why are young Mid-Atlantic Americans glottal stopping?–the glottal stop being a consonant-swallowing vocalization found many places around the world but most famously in the British Isles. You can hear it in your mind’s ear if you think of Stanley Holloway singing “With a lih-ill bi’ o’ luck” in My Fair Lady or one of the Beatles saying, well, “Bea-ulls.”

Glottalization, especially on the t sound in the middle and at the end of words, has traditionally been associated with working-class Cockney, Liverpudlian and Glaswegian, but in an interesting recent development (since the 1980s, in any case) it has migrated upward socially, as a prominent feature of so-called Estuary English. This is a manner of speech favored by the middle-class youth of the greater London area, sometimes referred to as “Mockney.” For classic examples of Estuary, listen to the comedian Ricky Gervais or the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; not 30 seconds will go by without at least one glottal stop. (Jamie, especially, also goes in for another notable feature, pronouncing th as f–“I’m firty-free years old.”) Here is Gervais emceeing last year’s Golden Globes; note the way he says settled and variety.

But how did glottal stop make its way to 20-year-old New Jerseyans? Since I have a strange fascination with the many British expressions–bits, ginger, whinge, gone missing, and so on–that have been imported into American English in recent years, and even conduct a blog on the subject, Not One-Off Britishisms, I was tempted to view this as another example of the phenomenon. But that doesn’t wash. The Britishisms I chart on the blog are driven by the chattering classes; glottalization clearly springs from a very different segment of society.

When I looked into the scholarship, I found it unhelpful. As the authors of one recent (2009) study note, “While there is an abundant literature on t-glottalization in the United Kingdom, investigation into the linguistic, geographic, and social factors that influence it in American English is in its infancy.” True that. They themselves tested just 58 speakers and found, not surprisingly, that t-glottalization was most common among the young and females. For reasons I don’t completely understand, only two-word combinations were tested–foot away, street outside, right ankle, etc.–not what appear to me to be the most common and noteworthy examples, single words like important, Clinton or button.

There are actually four possible pronunciations of the middle t sound in those words. British “received pronunciation” would give it a hard t. Americans only do that when the final consonant is stressed–pretend, return. Otherwise, we traditionally employ the “syllabic n,” in which the t is pronounced as t, but the subsequent syllable as a sort of vowel-less n. I recall in 1992 that northerners were instructed that the correct pronunciation isn’t Clin-ton but rather Clint-’n.

Next, there is “flapping,” which Americans favor especially when the final syllable doesn’t end with n; thus, we say latter as ladder and city as siddy. Then there’s the new kid on the block, glottal stop. Getting back to the 2009 study I mentioned, an even more significant shortcoming is that none of the 58 participants was African-American. I say that because my observation is that the main manifestations of glottalization in popular culture are the expression “Oh no she dih-ent” (which originated, I think, as a ritualized audience response on The Maury Povich Show) and many, many rap songs. Glottalization has long been a characteristic of the form, at least as long ago as 1991, when Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Do You Want Me.” In the clip below, (at about the 21-second mark), the male singer raps, “You gotta let me know suh-’en.”  

In the popular music sphere, at least, glottalization has crossed racial lines. Last year  the (white female) singer Kesha released a song called “My First Kiss.” Listen to the way she glottalizes little.

As Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out to me, the particular word is a surprising candidate for vocalization in not ending with an n; thus Kesha is glottalizing on a Jamie Oliver level.

I am left, in any event, with the observation that t-glottalization is rapidly spreading among young white female Americans, and the hypothesis that it came to them via an African-American style. How that style came about and how the transfer happened, I don’t know.

Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

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