Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why have we got it in for the glottal stop?

Speakers of British English always seem to be on the lookout for the glottal stop: that abrupt silence that can replace the “t” in words like “right” or “taught” or between the syllables in an exclamation like “uh-oh!”. This week, it was Ed Miliband who found himself hauled in front of the language police. Speaking to Russell Brand in a video, we can hear him pull out all the, erm, stops. He says “Gotta deal with that” and “Gotta do it”, his glottis snapping shut after the verb like a Tory voter’s door in his face. The reaction was scathing: as one Twitter user put it: “taking glottal stop lessons from @rustyrockets? Down wiv da kids, eh Ed?”

There’s a reason this humble consonant gets so much attention. And it is a consonant, not just a “nothing”. As a means of obstructing the airflow in the vocal tract, it fits the criteria perfectly – and it’s used in languages from Arabic to Thai. The phonetic notation used by linguists to represent it is a gnomicly questioning “ʔ”.

So why does it have such a bad reputation? Criticism of it dates back decades, and is often targeted at speakers who “should know better”. Even Princess Diana succumbed, although she is reported to have defended herself by saying “There’s a loʔ of iʔ abouʔ”.

In British society, which is particularly good at picking up on minute indicators of class and status, the glottal stop has what linguists call “social salience”. Because it’s a phonetic variant – not a sound that changes meaning like “p” or “h” in “pot” and “hot”, but a difference around the edges – it can be made to perform a non-linguistic function. That is to say, whether you use it or not doesn’t affect your ability to be understood. But it does impart social information.

What do his stops tell us about the Labour leader then? The crucial thing to remember about variants like this is that their social meaning is context dependent. When William Labovinvestigated accents in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, back in the 1960s (his thesis shaped the entire discipline of sociolinguistics: not bad for a master’s student), he found that sounds associated with diehard islanders were stigmatised in certain contexts but seemed to have prestige in others. On the one hand, they were thought of as old-fashioned and backward, and some people did their best to avoid them. On the other, they represented a fightback against the gentrification of the island by tourists, embodying a kind of authenticity.

The glottal stop (more specifically, the glottalisation of “t”) is a feature traditionally associated with male, working-class speakers. But even as far back as 1982, linguist John Wells noticed it being picked up by young speakers of “prestige” British English – otherwise known as received pronunciation. It’s difficult to say exactly why that happened, but Labov’s idea of “covert prestige” makes intuitive sense. Some sounds, even though they’re generally regarded as markers of an “inferior” dialect, are nevertheless used to signal group membership, solidarity or cool. In other words, being down wiv da kids.

The politically charged question, however, is whether Miliband was deliberately changing his accent in order to get in with Brand, a working-class lad from Essex, or appeal to his fans. It’s unlikely. Labov thought that changes motivated by covert prestige were usually made “below the horizon of conscious awareness”. That’s in contrast to the changes we might adopt when shifting to a more formal register – deliberately trying to sound posher during a job interview, or on the phone to a stranger. Elsewhere in the academic forest, social psychologists have identified what they call “communication accommodation”, where the accents of partners in a conversation tend to converge when they’re attempting to build alliances, and diverge where they want to distinguish themselves from each other.

The basic insight of sociolinguistics was that social relationships affect the way we speak. The dynamics of human interaction – hierarchy, solidarity, disdain or admiration – can turn a high vowel into a low one, replace one consonant with another, and make would-be prime ministers sound like comedians. It’s quite possible that the glottalisation of “t” will soon become a standard feature of British English. An initially socially driven change will become so widespread that language learners (that’s to say children) perceive it as neutral: just the way we say things. Then the prejudice against it – ultimately rooted in a stigmatisation of male, working-class speech – will dissipate. As an added bonus, we’ll finally stop hand-wringing each time an upper-middle class person with power uses it.

Shariatmadari, David. 2015. “Why have we got it in for the glottal stop?”. The Guardian. Posted: April 30, 2015. Available online:

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