Eggsy and Harry from Kingsman sit in a pub, drinking beer.

It's glo/t/al stop, not glo/ʔ/al stop! (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a series. You can find Part 2 here.

You do it. I do it (multiple times a day). Even your gran does it, often right next to you and you don’t even notice. She likes doing it too.

We all glottal our t’s.

T-glottaling is the sound produced by obstructing the airflow in the vocal tract, resulting in what seems like an omission of the letter /t/, and represented in text by what can only be described as a grieving question mark lamenting its stolen egg e.g. Draco would say “Oi, Po/t/er”, aspirating his t’s, whereas Hagrid might delightedly boom, “Arry Po/ʔ/er!”

In fact, /ʔ/ is a consonant in its own right but, like most deviations from established convention, it’s been subject to both historical and contemporary protest – usually by the same prescriptivists who mindlessly insist splitting infinitives is ‘bad grammar’ (spoiler alert: it’s not. It was an arbitrary rule pulled out of someone’s arse in the 18th Century when regularisation was all the craze and Latin was the guy to imitate, all the while apparently failing to realise that whilst you literally can’t split an infinitive in Latin, since they occur as a single word – e.g. amare, to love – you can in English, and with gusto and wild abandon e.g. to passionately detest prescriptivism. See? Ahem, I digress…).

/ʔ/ is a consonant in its own right but, like most deviations from established convention, it’s been subject to both historical and contemporary protest…

The earliest known meta-commentary on the emerging T-glottaling variable in Glasgow, from a letter dated to 1892, complains: “Strangers hurl at us a sort of shibboleth such sentences as ‘pass the wa’er bo”le, Mr Pa’erson”[1] and, as recently as 2011, Ed Miliband was widely pilloried for glottaling his t’s in that interview with Russel Brand: “Go/ʔ/a deal with that…go/ʔ/a do it.”

Brand interviewing Miliband.

If by this stage you’ve descended into a gibbering middle-class panic, imagine yourself in Waitrose or M&S, your basket full of ethically-sourced honey from bees fairly paid for their labour. Let that sensation of self-congratulation wash over you and casually say out loud: please sit down.

You just T-glottaled. Peasant.

Unless you’re reading aloud very slowly and very precisely, with informal speech chances are you say si/ʔ/ down – mainly because, anatomically, aspirating the /t/ in a pre-consonantal position (when it’s followed by a consonant) is quite difficult (or qui/ʔ/ difficult). So if we all do it and it’s not the 18th Century, why the stigma? Well, the answer seems to be a mix of salience and word position.

In a society like Britain’s where class and language are intrinsically associated with one another, certain linguistic variants, like the glottal stop, are subject to widespread stereotyping and perform extralinguistic functions such as imparting information (or, crucially, perceived information) about our background, particularly our level of privilege growing up. It’s one of the reasons why Received Pronunciation (more commonly known as Queen’s English) exists and is referred to as a sociolect – it reflects the linguistic norms of a social class as opposed to a dialect, which reflects those of a particular region e.g. Glaswegian, Mancunian, Cardiff Welsh. Historically, RP has emerged in Britain as the standard variety (as opposed to non-standard regional varieties) of English and it’s in this taxonomy that the stigmatisation of T-glottaling can be traced: not only as a non-standard variant but one that emerged from the working-class dialects of Glasgow and London, T-glottaling was always doomed to be a habitual bridesmaid. You’ve seen above that T-glottaling is pounced upon by purists – it’s a _salient_ variant. It’s well-known, subject to wide meta-linguistic commentary and is heavily stereotyped, its users often represented in media as urban-dwelling, working-class and, alas, gobby and unburdened by intellect (think the quintessential American effort at the Cockney accent – looking at you Dick Van Dyke).

Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, seemingly struggling to form words.

The perfect example of this is the class binary we see in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service between Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, our cockney-speaking (mostly), working-class protagonist, and upper-class, RP-drawling Harry Hart. Both characters use the glottal stop but the crucial disparity is that Eggsy regularly T-glottals in both word final and word medial position e.g. “tha/ʔ/s be/ʔ/er.” Think back to our T-glottaling exercise: in word final position, you don’t really notice that you’re replacing your [t] with a glottal stop and so we don’t really pick up on it when Harry, about to separate some local thugs from consciousness, says: “Manners maketh man. Do you know wha/ʔ/ tha/ʔ/ means?” We don’t hear it because we aren’t looking for it and, in word final position, it isn’t especially audible. Word medial T-glottaling, however, is highly salient – it’s very obvious to us, and thus easy to condemn its speakers for their lack of breeding over a slice of Battenberg with Humphrey at the Rotary Club.

Eggsy and Harry from Kingsman walk down the street together, in their respective attire.

Change, however, is afoo/ʔ/. Of late, T-glottaling has been described by sociolinguists as “one of the most dramatic, widespread and rapid changes to have occurred in British English in recent times” and been found to be migrating both “socially” and from “informal to formal speech.”[2] Amongst the research into the T-glottaling phenomenon, perhaps the most surprising and interesting conclusions are: it is rapidly progressing throughout Britain; its associated stigma is disappearing; and the developmental process is primarily being innovated by young, working and middle-class females.[3]

Who better, then, to be exemplary agent of subversion than Hermione Granger? In Part 2, we look at a small sociolinguistic study I completed assessing her development of T-glottaling between the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone, and the penultimate instalment, The Deathly Hallows Part One. Heads up: it’s fairly numbers heavy so if that isn’t your cup of tea or, like me, you have panic attacks at the thought of counting in double figures, I won’t judge you for turning back (I mean, I will but not till you’re out of earshot). If, however, numbers, tables and graphs are a guilty pleasure of yours, shut your bedroom door, crack out the Vaseline and click on Part 2.

If you’ve any questions, by all means comment below and I’ll do my best to ignore respond quickly. More importantly, if you’ve any knowledge of instances where this particular linguistic trope is defied, I’d love to hear about it.

[1] Macafee, 1994: 27, n. 20, cited from Stuart-Smith, 1999: 183.

[2] Trudgill, 1999: 136.

[3] Recent research by Mees & Collins (1999) has shown that, in Cardiff, T-glottaling has actually replaced aspirated [t] as the prestige variant (in other words, the standard variant), an evolution that has, most significantly, been suggested to be the result of a shift in perceptions, with [ʔ] representing “a more sophisticated and fashionable speech…associated with London life, metropolitan fashions and trend-setting attitudes” (Straw & Patrick, 2003: 14).


References

  • Mees, I. & Collins, B. (1999). "Cardiff: a real-time study of glottalisation." In P. Foulkes & G. Docherty (eds.) Urban voices. London: Arnold. 185-2-2.
  • Straw, M & Patrick, P (2003) Variation in the realisation of (t) in Ipswich – NWAV 2003 abstract www.ling.upenn.edu/NWAVE/abs-pdf/patrick.pdf
  • Stuart-Smith, J. (1999). "Glottals past and present: a study of t- glottalling in Glaswegian." In C. Upton and K. Wales (eds.). Leeds studies in English. Leeds: University of Leeds.
  • Trudgill, P (1999) The Dialects of England, Oxford: Blackwell.

Further Reading

  • Tagliamonte, S (2012), Variationist Sociolinguistics, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

For more on British accents, see:


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