What Is a Glottal Stop in Phonetics?

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In phonetics, a glottal stop is a stop sound made by rapidly closing the vocal cords. Arthur Hughes et al. describe the glottal stop as "a form of plosive  in which the closure is made by bringing the vocal folds together, as when holding one's breath (the glottis is not a speech organ, but the space between the vocal folds)" ("English Accents and Dialects", 2013). The term is also called a glottal plosive.

In "Authority in Language" (2012), James and Lesley Milroy point out that the glottal stop appears in limited phonetic contexts. For example, in many dialects of English it can be heard as a variant of the /t/ sound between vowels and at the ends of words, such as metal, Latin, bought, and cut (but not ten, take, stop, or left). The use of the glottal stop in place of another sound is called glottalling.

"The glottal stop is inside us all," says David Crystal, "part of our phonetic ability as human beings, waiting to be put to use. We use one every time we cough." ("The Stories of English", 2004)

Glottal Stop Examples and Observations

  • "Glottal stops are made quite frequently in English, although we rarely notice them because they do not make a difference in the meaning of English words. . . . English speakers usually insert a glottal stop before word initial vowels, like in the words it, ate, and ouch. If you say these words naturally, you will probably feel a catch in your throat just as you [do] in the expression uh-oh."
    (T. L. Cleghorn and N. M. Rugg, "Comprehensive Articulatory Phonetics: A Tool for Mastering the World's Languages", 2nd ed., 2011)
     
  • Glottalization 
    "Glottalization is a general term for any articulation involving a simultaneous constriction, especially a glottal stop. In English, glottal stops are often used in this way to reinforce a voiceless plosive at the end of a word, as in what?"
    (David Crystal, "A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics", 1997)
     
  • Uh-Oh . . . and Other Examples
    "We often make this stop -- it's the sound we make when we say 'uh-oh.' In some languages, this is a separate consonant sound, but in English, we often use it with d, t, k, g, b or p when one of those sounds happens at the end of a word or syllable. . . . We close the vocal cords very sharply and make the air stop for just a moment. We don't let the air escape.

    "This glottal stop is the last sound of these words:
    • words: light . . . flight . . . put . . . take . . . make . . . trip . . . report
    • multisyllabic words: stoplight . . . apartment . . . backseat . . . assortment . . . workload . . . upbeat
    • phrases: right now . . . talk back . . . cook the books . . . hate mail . . . fax machine . . . back-breaking
    You also hear it in words and syllables that end in t + a vowel + n. We don't say the vowel at all, so we say the t + n: button . . . cotton . . . kitten . . . Clinton . . . continent . . . forgotten . . . sentence."
    (Charlsie Childs, "Improve Your American English Accent", 2004)
     
  • Changing Pronunciations
    "Nowadays younger speakers of many forms of British English have glottal stops at the ends of words such as cap, cat, and back. A generation or so ago speakers of BBC English would have regarded such a pronunciation as improper, almost as bad as producing a glottal stop between vowels in the London Cockney pronunciation of butter ... In America, nearly everybody has a glottal stop in button and bitten .."
    (Peter Ladefoged, "Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages, Vol. 1", 2nd ed., 2005)
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    Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Glottal Stop in Phonetics?" ThoughtCo, May. 8, 2018, thoughtco.com/glottal-stop-phonetics-1690901. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 8). What Is a Glottal Stop in Phonetics? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/glottal-stop-phonetics-1690901 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Glottal Stop in Phonetics?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/glottal-stop-phonetics-1690901 (accessed May 24, 2018).