Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pre-glottalization in British English

As an American, one of the most striking phonetic features of British English for me is the pre-glottalization of voiceless stops, often with concurrent aspiration of a word-final stop, as in the word "caught": kɒʔtʰ. In some dialects pre-glottalization becomes replacement, as in the classic example of Cockney "bottle" as bɒʔəl. Since complete glottal closure is part of the articulation of a stop, whether or not a stop is pre-glottalized can be difficult to tell, especially in rapid speech. Teasing out the glottal closure with the articulation of the stop itself to make it a separate phonetic segment takes time and articulatory energy, and thus it is much reduced in rapid speech. Listening to a paragraph at the Speech Accent Archive (my discussion will be a lot clearer if you click on that first link and take a look at the paragraph yourself), I felt I had to disagree with the transcribers decisions in transcribing "thick," "snack," and "meet," which to be have a hint of pre-glottalization.

Much has been written of pre-glottalization, most of it by Frederik Kortlandt, but there seems to have been little attention paid to what this does to syllable structure. There seems to be a tendency to interpret a glottal stop as syllable-final, and any stops after it get thrown into the onset of the following syllable. For instance, in the paragraph mentioned above, "meet her" comes out more like miʔ.tʰɜ than mi(ʔ)t.hɜ. We can see a clear difference with the word "snake," which has no pre-glottalization. In the sequence "snake and," we end up with snejk.ʔæn(d), rather than snej(ʔ).kæn(d). An argument I made in a presentation this year was that it may be possible for word-final stops to be syllabified separately, especially after a glottal stop (I took my data from Blackfoot, but English does this quite commonly as well). As my colleague Tim Henry explained to me, the reason stops have so much force at the end of words is that without aspiration or a following vowel, it is exceedingly difficult to perceive the stop's place of articulation.


UrbanVagabond said...

OK so this comment is five years late. But I'm an American and a linguist and AFAIK American speech has pre-glottalized final voiceless stops, too. This is what I hear in my own speech and is also what I've been taught about English. The pre-glottalization is one of the cues to distinguish voiced vs. voiceless final stops, so it makes sense that it's everywhere. In my speech (and probably everywhere), this occurs more noticeably with short root vowels, as in bet, bit, but, although it's also present with other root vowels. There's logic to this too: Because length is used in English both to distinguish vowel quality (longer tense vs. shorter lax vowels) and final consonant voicing, there are at least three lengths in English, ranging from ultrashort (lax + voiceless, as in "bet") to long (tense + voiced, as in "bead"). Stronger glottal closure is a good way to cut off the voice suddenly to achieve ultrashort vowels, and the stronger glottal closure may also be needed to clearly signal the ultrashortness, because the vowels in "beg" and "big" also need to be relatively short to help signal their lax quality.

I would bet that
(1) you're probably noticing the pre-glottalization more because of the British tendency towards released (and post-aspirated) stops, whereas the American tendency is unreleased final stops;
(2) the pre-glottalization may well be stronger in connected speech than isolated word forms, and this may be confusing you.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Indeed, I think the main phonetic characteristic I was noting was word-final aspiration, since American English most certainly uses pre-glottalization pretty much everywhere.