swallowing ‘t’s

A while back, I met a couple whose accents were from northern England. I suspected that their accents were from Manchester but I’ve found that guessing wrong can offend some folks. (Ask an Australian if he’s English if you don’t believe me.) I asked if they’d mind my asking about their accents.

“Sure. We’re English,” they said.

“Well, duh!” I thought to myself. I sometimes get this answer because most Brits think I sound American. Some Americans find this hilarious.

Some Brits get cagey when asked about their accents, so I usually try explaining my accent as an icebreaker: “I’m from Durham but I left when I was 10. I often describe my accent as ‘lapsed Geordie.’ I can hear that you’ve got northern accents but I can’t narrow it down any further.”

They relaxed a bit. “Oh! We’re from Manchester.” At least I’d guessed right if only to myself.

We chatted a bit about TV shows set in Manchester (“Life on Mars”, “Scott & Bailey”) and I noticed bits of my accent coming back. I noticed that my vowels were doing whatever it is that northern accents do and the cadence of my sentences was reverting to the old way. Another thing that I’d noticed was that I was swallowing most of my ‘t’s.

You may be thinking “Swallowing what?” I’ll tell you. A number of English accents, and a couple of American ones, replace mid-word ‘t’s with a glottal stop. The glottis is the part of the larynx with the vocal cords and an opening between them. It’s called a stop because it slams the cords together to prevent air from moving between them.

When I make that not-quite-sound, the feeling in my throat reminds me of swallowing. That’s why I call it “swallowing ‘t’s”.

I went to Wikipedia to verify a detail for this post (glottal stop). Apparently, the example that I’m talking about is called T-glottalization. Wiki also cited the sound between the vowels of “uh-oh” as another English language example to the stop.

There are a couple of symbols for the not-quite-sound. When representing Arabic words with a glottal stop, a lot of folks use an apostrophe (‘). this means that writing a word like “butter” with a glottal stop in place of the ‘t’ sound would look like “bu’er”.

The other symbol is from the International Phonetic Alphabet. The symbol is “ʔ” which I think of as a question mark without a dot. With this, the aforementioned “butter” would look like “buʔer”.

Well, not really, the IPA also has some nutty ways to represent the “bu” and “er” sounds that I’m too lazy to look it up.

I seem to have wandered a bit. Anyway, my accent quickly drifted back to where it’d been before I started chatting with the folks from Manchester.

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