Uh-oh

“Tina. I’m Tina. ‘Akushtina Santis Pulivok.” I had no idea why I gave him my full name. I could always tell when someone thought it was strange and that happened often enough that I had quit saying it.

“?Akushtina,” he said. “A beautiful name. For a beautiful woman.”

I stared at him. The surprise wasn’t so much that he thought it was beautiful, though that was unexpected too; the glottal stop at the beginning of `Akushtina sounded ugly to most people who didn’t speak Tzotzil Mayan. But what really hit me was that he pronounced it right.

Catherine Asaro, Catch The Lightning

It's rumored to be in the hands of a shady man in the Uh-Oh district of town.

You can't usually use "uh-oh" in a sentence. Unless you're a Wonder Woman villain.

English has a lot of sounds that briefly block the flow of air – “t”, “k”, “p”, for example – but the only glottal stop many English speakers use is in the word “uh-oh”. And “uh-oh” is an interjection, and interjections don’t necessarily follow the rules other words do – take “shhh”, the shushing sound, which doesn’t have a vowel.

Like “t”, the glottal stop halts the flow of air through the vocal tract. It’s produced by closing the vocal folds together. In many languages, it’s a distinct sound in its own right, no more special than “t” or “z” in English. Arabic and Hebrew use it, as does Hawaiian (in words like, well, “Hawai’i”.) It also turns up in some of the big fictional languages – Klingon, for example, and Na’vi (which has it right there in the name).

Since English doesn’t consider it a distinct sound, how should it be written? (The single English example – “uh-oh” – might suggest that the hyphen represents the glottal stop, but usually the hyphen doesn’t correspond to any sound at all.)

This is a problem for more than just the glottal stop. The world’s languages are chock full of sounds that English just doesn’t have, and even when English does have a sound, it’s often pronounced differently by different speakers. (Foreign language books written for British readers often describe the German “ö” sound as corresponding to the “ir” in “bird”; this is certainly not the case for Americans.)

So people who study languages have developed specialized notation for sounds. One such system, the Americanist system, used to use an apostrophe for glottal stop – like when ‘Akushtina says her name. Klingon and Na’vi also use the same system. The Hawaiian writing system, which dates to the 1820s, does the same; I wasn’t quickly able to find whether the phoneticians borrowed the symbol from the Hawaiian missionaries, or vice-versa.

The question mark in Althor’s pronunciation of “?Akushtina” derives from the other system for writing sounds – the International Phonetic Alphabet, which uses ʔ. (Maybe the typesetters for the 1996 hardbound printing of Catch The Lightning didn’t have one handy.)

Now, that “uh-oh” example might have been nagging at you if you’ve heard – correctly – that some British speakers pronounce certain “t” sounds as a glottal stop; the Cockney “bu’er” for “butter”, for example. This is true.

The difference between this English use of the glottal stop, and, say, the Hawaiin use, is that a speaker of Hawaiian would consider the glottal stop to be distinct from the other sounds of Hawaiian. In contrast, an English speaker who used glottal stop for certain “t”‘s would consider it just another “t”, and might not notice the difference unless it was pointed out to them – and might find it hard to hear even then, since they’ve learned to treat both “t” and glottal stop as belonging to the same category.

Hard to believe? Well, American English also turns “t” into glottal stop in certain contexts. They’re just not the same contexts as British English, so American speakers notice the glottal stop in British English, but not in their own.

At the end of words, for example, American speakers often produce “t” as a glottal stop. (Late last year, I and about thirty other PhD candidates chased people down, recorded them talking, and then transcribed the recordings, hunting down all the word-final “t”‘s to see exactly how they were pronounced.) Fairly frequently, these native speakers of American English turned word-final “t” into a glottal stop.

What startled me most is that after years of transcribing English, and of working with languages that do treat glottal stop as a separate sound, I hadn’t noticed that particular variation – even though I regularly used it myself. So if you can’t believe it at first … I don’t blame you. At first, a lot of other people can’ʔ believe it either.

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