The Bad Boy of English Pronunciation

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The Bad Boy of English Pronunciation -

Fancy an accent tattoo? Fourth in the series Accent Through the Keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast download.

Speech sounds are just neutral, aren’t they? So how can there be a ‘bad boy’?

Yes, it’s funny that, isn’t it? But people do talk about ‘bad language’, meaning speech containing a lot of swear words. Children who say f*** are sometimes be told to wash their mouth out with soap and water. In a similar way, some aspects of accents are regarded as intrinsically bad, and perhaps the worst of all is the glottal stop.

Yeah, that’s right. My mum hates it if I pronounce bottle as bo’le. She says it’s lazy.

Yes, you get newspaper columns devoted to the glottal stop, with pundits talking about how ugly it is, and how standards are declining these days. And the glottal stop isn’t even a sound – it’s the lack of one. It’s a microsecond of silence caused by closing the throat, the same manoeuvre we use when swallowing. Usually used to replace a ‘t’. Like a missing tooth, it’s reversely conspicuous – you see a gap where you expect to see a tooth, and you hear a silence where you expect to hear a ‘t’.

And that’s somehow perceived as offensive?

Right. But what the guardians of accent hygiene don’t seem to realise is that they themselves almost certainly use glottal stops too. Say apple. You probably put a glottal stop before the ‘a’. It creates a hard place to push yourself off from, into the pool of the ‘a’ vowel. Now say not now. You probably replace that ‘t’ with a glottal stop. The tongue is in the same position for the ‘t’ and the ‘n’, so it’s hard to separate the two sounds otherwise. It can be achieved, but it makes it sound like you’re being unnaturally careful. Same thing goes for a word like button.

OK, so in what contexts is it seen as being specially bad?

Well, replacing the ‘t’ before an ‘l’ in words like bottle and little – and worse still, replacing the ‘t’ between vowels in a word like water. We’ve got a scale of accent sin, ranging from button, where the glottal is normal, through bottle, where it’s naughty, to water, where it’s positively rude. Find out where you are on this scale: record yourself saying the poem below, then listen back and underline the places where you replace the ‘t’ with a glottal stop.

I know a little bit about buttons

I had buttons down the front of my shirt

They fell off when the cotton got rotten

And the buttons got forgotten in the dirt

Ha ha – if I say all the ‘t’s as glottals, it sounds Cockney!

True, but it’s not only Cockney – the glottal stop is widespread in plenty of regional accents. That’s why I think students need to know about it. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about it in the ELT world, but the fact is, students are likely to hear it and blame their ears for not hearing the ‘t’. By pointing it out, we make it ‘official’, and it will come as a relief for them to know their ears are not to blame. I’m not saying they have to produce it themselves, of course, but there’s no better way of raising awareness of it than trying.

This reminds me a bit of h-dropping.

What, like pronouncing his hand on his heart as is and on is art? Yes, that is another bette noir, and reversely conspicuous like the glottal stop – not a sound, but the lack of one. And again, most zealots who complain about h-dropping do it themselves, particularly in grammatical words like pronouns (he, his, her) and auxiliary verbs (have, has) in fast speech. If you make your students aware of this, you’ll be doing them a favour, particularly when it comes to listening.

My French and Italian students already h-drop in English.

Right. I would actually encourage them to pronounce the ‘h’ in lexical words like heart. Often, if you drop it, you get another word, like art, so it’s safer to pronounce it. Later on, if they’re going to h-drop, that’s ok, but let it be out of choice rather than ignorance. Same goes for glottal stops - it has to be the student that chooses. But warn them that, with some interlocutors, there may be stigma attached to both glottal stops and h-dropping. Like a tattoo!


Last week: The Reverse Lisp

Next week: Accent Creep

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