Compared to other languages, English doesn’t have too many unusual sounds. There are two notable exceptions: the TH-sound (written as /θ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet), and the glottal stop. While it’s an uncommon sound in the grand scheme of world languages, the glottal stop is actually so common in English that it has earned its own name. Let’s take a look at this unique sound.
What Is A Glottal Stop?
As the name implies, a glottal stop is made in the glottis, or the folds of the vocal cords, which is the part of the throat we close off while swallowing. The reason it’s a “stop” is that there’s an interruption of the airflow when speaking. Simply put: It’s the sound made by rapidly closing and releasing the vocal folds while breathing out, like the middle pause when we say “uh-oh.”
A few other languages use this as a full sound, such as Hawaiian, Arabic, Malay, Danish, Squamish and Tagalog, but in English its use is quite unique, and doesn’t quite count as a full sound.
How Does English Use The Glottal Stop?
Different varieties of English use the glottal stop differently, but there’s one primary way that it enters into most varieties: by T-glottalization. This means it’s used as an allophone (or possible alternate) of the T-sound. So it doesn’t change the meaning of a word, but can make your speech sound more natural, both for English native speakers and non-natives alike.
Let’s look at how the glottal stop is used in different types of English.
The Glottal Stop in American English
T-glottalization doesn’t occur in American English very often, but there is one instance where its application is very widespread: before syllabic /n/. What does that mean? There are several words in English that end with the spelling –en or –on, but the last syllable of the word doesn’t actually contain a vowel sound when pronounced. If there is a T-sound directly before the syllabic /n/, it may be produced as a glottal stop in American English.
For example, take the word “kitten,” which phonemically is /kɪtn/. Here, the /t/ is followed directly by a syllabic /n/, so may be produced as a glottal stop, meaning this word could end up sounding more like kit’n. Other examples in American English are “cotton,” “mitten” and “button,” to name a few. This use of the glottal stop is so widespread in American English that native speakers don’t notice it in their daily speech!
The Glottal Stop in British English
Meanwhile, there are many varieties of British English where T-glottalization is much more widespread and noticeable. It’s generally considered correct in modern Southern Standard British English (SSBE) that T-sounds should be pronounced as a glottal stop when at the end of a syllable, followed immediately by a labial consonant (a consonant made with the lips) meaning P, B, M, W, F or V. This applies regardless of whether the T and the labial consonant meet within a word or between words.
For example, the words “network” and “pitfall,” as well as in the phrases “that one” and “shot by,” sound perfectly modern — and correct — with a glottal stop instead of the T-sound.
Finally, whether or not to use the glottal stop in place of T between or before a vowel sound is a hotly debated topic among native speakers of SSBE. An example of this would be pronouncing “let it” as le’ it and “water” as wa’er. Many speakers do it frequently but will report that they don’t — and in fact that they dislike its use — though this is changing. So should you imitate this if you’re learning English?
How To Use Them In English If You’re A Learner
The aim of speaking any foreign language is understanding, so as long as speakers can understand you, and you can understand them then you’re doing fine. How much you choose to use the glottal stop in your English is up to you. This may depend on what kind of speakers you’re interacting with and what types of situations you’re using it in.
For formal situations, it may be prudent to go easy on the glottal stops (except where it is followed by a labial consonant), whereas if you’re just hanging out with friends, a glottal stop here and there between vowel sounds is just fine.