What is a glottal stop?
Published on July 5, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
The glottal stop is the name linguists have given a type of sound people make when speaking. If you say the phrase ‘uh oh’, the little hiccup noise after the first ‘uh’ is a glottal stop. Many languages use this sound, including Hebrew, Thai, Tagalog, Danish and Czech. In English, the amount of glottal stops in someone’s speech depends heavily on where they’re from, and can be a marker of socio-economic class.
Your vocal cords or folds are made of smooth muscle. If you put your hand on your throat while speaking, you can feel the vibration of these vocal cords as air moves past them. We change the shape of these bands of muscle to make different sounds. When you ‘lose your voice’ when you’re sick, it’s your vocal cords becoming inflamed and struggling to move that causes it. When we make the glottal stop, our vocal cords nearly block all air entirely, so it stops the sound, and then pop open again. This sound often occurs when a speaker is pronouncing consonants followed by another vowel sound, like in butter or water. The vowel sound can be in the following word as well.
Most English speakers will put it in there occasionally, but some use it much more often than others.
American English speakers don’t use the glottal stop often, and if you ask an American English speaker they will probably tell you they don’t use it at all! However, you can hear it in words that end in ‘ten’, like kitten, mitten, and bitten. It’s pretty subtle, and you won’t hear it in words that end in ‘den’, like eden or hidden. It’s not a major feature of American regional accents, and while it can sometimes be associated with class, it’s not as much of a social marker as it is in Britain.
British English and Australian speakers use the glottal stop much more often, and across more sounds, including at the beginning of some words. It’s generally considered a lower-class speech pattern, and it’s a point of discussion when politicians litter their speech with it. Probably the most famous of these glottal-stop laden dialects would be Cockney. A dialect associated with the predominantly working class east end of London, Cockney is full of glottal stops. This kind of accent was discouraged for many years, and not represented in film or television. You can hear a cleaned-up version in Michael Caine’s Alfie from 1966. For most people, a Cockney accent is the best example of a glottal stop in action.
That’s a good question. In American English, most people won’t notice if you use a glottal stop or not, and it won’t make it difficult to understand you. Some people will even appreciate your clear pronunciation of words like bitten and mitten. In British English it gets a bit more challenging to explain. Accents and dialects in Britain are heavily entangled in the class system, and whether people admit it or not, judgements are made based on your accent. Most native British English speakers would not be impressed by an attempt at a Cockney accent, and people from the east end would likely take offense, so it’s best not to try and incorporate too many glottal stops into your speech. Ideally, aim for RP, Received Pronunciation, sometimes described as ‘BBC English’, if you’re learning British English.
There are some elements of learning a language, like getting the grammar right and using slang, that make you sound more like a native speaker. Dropping in glottal stops is not really necessary, however, and when it goes wrong, it may insult someone depending on where you are. After living and working with native speakers for a while, you might find yourself making glottal stops unconsciously. Just don’t force it!