Glo’al sto’ no’ heard in Bri’ish poli’ socie’y?

The dirty if not very surprising little secret of this blog is that the majority of its readers are U.K. residents, who are surprised or possibly amused that Americans have been picking up their lingo. And it’s to these Britons that I address a question.

I was reading an article in the New York Times by critic Alastair Macaulay about the quality of dance in Broadway musicals. At the end, he wrote:

As a Briton going to shows on Broadway, may I add what a fun surprise it is to hear, in two different productions, the British glottal stop? Lauren in “Kinky Boots” speaks of going to “I’aly”; and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda” says “Bu’ I’ve go’ a baby.”In Britain the glottal stop is never heard in polite society. In America, however, it’s an exotic thrill.

That rather gobsmacked me. I have written about the current popularity of the glottal stop in the U.S., and I thought it was widespread in Britain. I certainly hear it all the time from Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais. But perhaps they don’t belong, in Mr. Macaulay’s view, to “polite society.” In any case, I await the reactions of NOOB readers.

33 thoughts on “Glo’al sto’ no’ heard in Bri’ish poli’ socie’y?

  1. I thnk glo’al stops are used only by some – … none of my friends use them, and we’re not posh!

  2. Maybe it depends what you mean by “polite society”. I associate the expression with upper-middle and upper classes where the emphasis was (and probably still is, I don’t like to think about how little has changed…) on “respectability” above all else, and entertainers like Oliver and Gervais would not be considered exactly respectable, rather amusing novelties. The status of the glottal stop must have shifted though, since famously Tony Blair affected it in an attempt to appear more of a man of the people, and quite a few of the seriously posh people I was at university with seemed to have it. Maybe it’s still shifting, which would make sense as RP has got considerably less posh over the last few decades (sorry about the lack of decent terminology here). I’ve heard that called “Estuarification” in reference to it becoming more like a London accent, but that’s really not my part of the country, so apologies to anyone from the South-East if that’s wrong.

    In Other News: I am now officially dirty. I’ve always said so.

  3. OK it’s class class class. The glottal stop was (“is” is fading) not the Queen’s English, nor BBC. But how things are changing for the better! I was born in an age where the slightest “wrong” inflection or pronunciation could mean not getting a job or a promotion. Now things are so dramatically different that I love listening to Will and Harry, and catching their slide into vowels that aren’t precisely as per the Queen. I think it’s terrific – class and accent took a vicious toll on those reared with an unacceptable lilt or burr. So I’m all for the glottal stop! But also I hope that the country accents stay…and perhaps America will be the best evidence of the “old” speech. You say potato and I say tomato, whatever. TG soon there won’t be people who judge by what they hear, or perhaps that’s ‘ear!!!

  4. So yes, Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais throw glottal stops around like they were going out of style. But TV is not ‘polite society’. What your commenter means is that he never hears them in real life – his coworkers, friends, family, transport announcers, etc all use proper RP. One might use a glottal stop when putting on an accent for the amusement of one’s companions (hence the Ricky Gervais exception) or tolerate it as an adorable quirk in someone who can’t be expected to know better (see Jamie Oliver) but in conversation or daily life, never – one’s listener might think one was uneducated or (worse!) lower class! And yes, given his career, the critic is most definitely not lower class. . .

    1. “tolerate it as an adorable quirk in someone who can’t be expected to know better (see Jamie Oliver)”

      Jamie Oliver speaks like that because that’s how people speak where he comes from speak, not because he “can’t be expected to know better”. Would you say someone with a North Country accent “can’t be expected to know better?” I thought that kind of accent-based snobbery died out when Wilfred Pickles was finally allowed to be an announcer on the BBC more than 70 years ago. If other people’s accents annoy you, that’s your fault, not theirs.

  5. The “stop” in the title of your item would not be affected by a glottal stop, and “heard” would almost certainly be ‘eard to anyone who used a glottal stop.

    On an unrelated issue, I was amused to read a profile of comedian John Oliver the other day in which he remarked that his US audience regarded his distinctly Brummie accent as “posh” English. No one ever thought that about my Brummie accent.

    1. Tbh, his accent isn’y that distinctive. Not especially posh but I didn’t even know he was from Birmingham so it isn’t that strong.

  6. It’s partly “class”, it’s partly dialect. The glottal stop is very common in the East London Cockney accent, which some then intentionally put on to sound “hip” and “cool”, hence the term “Mockney”. In my view the class aspect is more about quality of education and parenting than anything else though. I was taught not to use it, and if I hear my children use it I teach them not to use it either.

  7. Up to a point, Lord Copper… Whilst your quote is an NYT article, I think many BrE speakers reading would assume a degree of irony’ in the ‘never’ of ‘never heard’. In part that’s because for many their workplace or home has a much wider range of backgrounds/accents than a few decades back.

    BrE speakers will often move their accent slightly according to those around them and the subject at hand – I doubt it’s even done as a deliberate thing. Actually, it’s akin to kids speaking differently in the playground and home – it’s situational.

    TV and radio in UK also now use a much wider range of accents. In some cases as a form of affirmative action in other cases to sound different and ‘down with the yoof’ – especially for continuity announcers. Depending on what you listen to/watch you can end up hearing a lot less RP than in the past.

  8. I’m American, but lived overseas much of my childhood, including a few years in England. When I finally moved back to the US to stay, I remember being amazed that Americans take any British accent to be “classy”. I specifically remember when I was in college hearing a couple of girls talk about an English guy they’d met and they were cooing about how classy and cool his accent was. It was a bit of shock when I met the guy in question and heard him speak in what sounded like a comedian’s parody of an exaggerated Scouse accent.

    So yeah, the glottal stop is not a feature of posh speech. But as has been remarked above, much of southern England has been becoming quite Cockneyfied over the past 25 or so years.

  9. AS Ray says, the glottal stop is very much part of the London accent, and by extension, perhaps, of Estuary, but not of RP. But I doubt the RP speakers represent ‘polite society’ nowadays. Jamie Oliver is quite an interesting example: his parents and his sister have been on the show, and as far as I could tell, they speak pure RP (hence the epithet ‘mockney’). This seems to me represent part of a general movement to the middle, from both ends of the social strata. For example the use of the word ‘mate’ as part of a greeting seems almost classless now, which it certainly wasn’t twenty or thirty years ago. Even the younger royals are beginning to sound vaguely normal.

    The media is very London centred, so you hear a lot of its various accents on radio and TV, especially Estuary. But as others have mentioned, what is accepted in entertainment programmes might not go down so well if it was used by announcers, for example.

    Incidentally, the glottal stop is also very much part of many Scottish accents

    1. Warsaw Will, women often speak with a more “refined” accent than their menfolk. That doesn’t meant that Jamie Oliver is therefore speaking “mockney”. In the Essex borderland where he grew up, I would think most men speak with a similar accent to the one he has, glottal stops incluided.

  10. People claiming Ricky Gervais has an ‘estuary’ accent are incorrect. He is from Reading and has a distinctive Berkshire accent. The portal stop is not only the preserve of ‘cockney’ or ‘estuary’. Many of the “lower class” (in very prominent quotation marks!) accents in the South and East of England feature it. The east Anglian accents of Suffolk and Norfolk have it, amongst my relatives, anyway. And the Glaswegian accent is rife with it.
    The critic talks of ‘polite society’. He actually refers to a small minority for whom RP remains a somewhat unrealistic ideal for the English spoken language.

  11. It depends on what kind of glottal stop you mean. In the title of this post, “Glo’al sto’ no’ heard in Bri’ish poli’ socie’y?”, there are both released an unreleased glottal stops. Those in “Glo’al”, “Bri’ish”, and “socie’y” are released glottal stops, (followed by vowels or syllabic consonants) and there are certain sections of British society that look unfavourably on them.

    Those in “sto'”, “no'”, and “poli'” would normally be unreleased glottal stops, and these (with the excepion of “sto'”, where the glottal stop represents /p/) would be found unexceptionable in almost all accents today.

    1. Yes, to what dw says above. Glottal stops are quite normal in many places. So: “Put that back” would be unlikely to include any pronounced /t/ sounds, whoever said it.

      Glottal stops before syllabic /n/ seem to me to be, if anything, more common in US than UK English, thus: /ɪmpɔ:ʔnt/ for “important”. Glottal stops before vowels and syllabic /l/, on the other hand, are a growing feature of UK English, especially among people in their teens and twenties. West Indian English and Estuary English/Cockney both have this feature, and have combined to make it feel cool, young and proletarian. That’s also why politicians often make themselves ridiculous by trying to copy it.

  12. A couple of months ago, Chancellor George Osborne was ridiculed in the press for veering into pseudo-cockney when giving a speech to supermarket workers. Just do a web search for George Osborne and cockney or here’s a clip: Osborne is a member of the aristocracy and was educated at one of Britain’s top public schools. He’s in fact been glotalling for a while, as has equally posh David Cameron. They’re not alone among the upper classes for talking “mockney”. You can sometimes hear princes Harry and William do it in a sort of transatlantic way. This trend has coincided with the decline of cockney in London. It’s been replaced by a kind of mock Afro-Caribbean accent even among young whites.

  13. My mum was the daughter of Eastern European parents and educated at boarding school in Hertfordshire, so she spoke ‘properly’ – but she never identified with the class whose speech she had been taught to conform to, and felt she was missing out by not having a recognisable regional identity.

    When I was about five or six years old, I remember being at her friend’s house and asking for a glass of water (which, being from South London, I would have pronounced “wa’er”, or, more accurately, “wa’ah”). The friend corrected me, saying she didn’t have any “wa’er”, but I could have a glass of *water* if I asked for one. My mother politely asked her not to correct my pronounciation, on the basis that she wouldn’t correct the vowels of a child from Liverpool, so she shouldn’t correct my regional accent either.

    I moved to Sussex in my twenties and my mother carried on living in London. In the few years before her death, ironically, our accents had almost started to meet in the middle.

  14. I would say it is more dependent on the examples the journalist gives. I think he is quite correct that in polite society people are much less likely to put a glottal stop in ‘Italy’, ‘but’, and ‘got’, because these are words where the ‘t’ is not difficult to enunciate, particularly with ‘Italy’ where it is in the middle of a word.

    This isn’t to say that the glottal stop won’t be missing entirely from these people’s speech, but it will be far less noticable by it occurring in more ‘natural’ speech positions. I would agree that hearing ‘I’aly’ can be somewhat jarring, and an indicator of social position. Such speech is now more acceptable with presenters on the hipper, more youthful BBC channels, but no BBC1 news presenter would drop that ‘t’.

  15. re “I’lay” – I heard that glottal stop coming from a VERMONT TV station promoting their trip to same…with an otherwise distinctly North American accent, also announcing that trippers would see art from (which always drives me nuts) “the renessance”. Sorry, just a thing of mine.

  16. Dropped aitches and glottal stops are features of the Cockney (East End of London) accent, possibly because of the fast pace of that dialect.

    Thanks to the urban replanning missions of the Luftwaffe in the early 40s, many East Enders were rehoused post-1945 further afield in the sunlit uplands of Essex, joined later by the more prosperous of the ‘Never Had It So Good’ Fifties and Sixties moving out to be among the cows instead of the traffic and taking their dialect with them, which passed down the generations has become known as Estuary English, a kind of quasi-posh, strangulated Cockney.

    However there is Mockney, an Estuary-Cockney hybrid affected by the Jack-the-lad/Regulah kinda guy, how ya doin’ me old cock sparra types who want to ‘connect’ with their working class roots or at least pretend they have some. Exhibits A and B: the Me Owld Mukka Jamie Oliver and the Right Pukka Tony Blair.

    Cockneys also used to ‘fink and fought’ and the vestiges of that waft occasionally down the Estuary too, but it seems less commonly heard; dropping aitches is still fashionable… innit?

  17. I think everyone’s pretty much already covered this. The glo’al stop is an estuary trait, but there are other regional dialects that employ it as well. But it’s very much not Received Pronunciation, nor is it by any means universal in ‘non-U’ dialects across the country. My own Mid-Ulster (Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland) accent doesn’t feature it, but I have cousins from north Antrim who do pronounce butter as ‘bu’err.’ So, there are no monolithic distinctions, other than that RP tends to frown upon it.

    By the way, it rather terrifies me that Americans think Ricky Gervais and Jamie Oliver are standard-bearers of ‘what English people sound like.’ Surely that’s a bit like if English people thought that standard American sounded like Joe Pesci or something…

  18. John, I do believe you’ve managed to cram more inaccuracy into four paragraphs than I would have believed possible. Cockneys dropped aitches and used glottal stops because of the fast pace of their dialect? What possible evidence do you have for that? And what about French, which also has dropped aitches and glottal stops? The New Towns movement was nothing to do with the bombing of London by the Luftwaffe. Estuary English is certainly not “quasi-posh Cockney”, and it is found in very many other places than where Londoners were settled as part of the New Towns dispersals. And once again, Jamie Oliver does NOT speak Mockney., Oh, and you don’t know how to use “innit”, innit.

  19. many East Enders were rehoused post-1945 further afield in the sunlit uplands of Essex, joined later by the more prosperous of the ‘Never Had It So Good’ Fifties and Sixties moving out to be among the cows


    1. So you agree that John B did not mention The New Towns movement?
      I think it more likely that he was referring to the Abercrombie Plan which was certainly a response to bomb damage amongst other things.

  20. In my experience, as well as being traditionally associated with Cockney and Estuary English accents, the glottal stop has more recently become a feature of speech in British young people regardless of their location.

    I find the trend in Yorkshire (and probably some other northern counties) interesting. The glottal stop is often used to replace /t/ sounds in the middle of words where traditionally they would have been pronounced /r/. E.g. “getting better” pronounced “ge’in be’er” where a more traditional regional pronunciation would be “gerrin berrer”.

  21. The glottal stop is not only a South Eastern phenomenon: it’s a signature element in several Scottish regional accents. To call it British, however, is erroneous, as many commentators have noted, despite the efforts of the posh boys at the top of the political tree to pretend that they’re anything like (or have any empathy for, or understanding of) ordinary Britons.

  22. Some people like to celebrate the end of “received” pronounciation in England (i.e. glottal stop free), because it means the legitimising of working class pronounciation. Unfortunately it’s fast becoming the new orthodoxy where everybody is a “cock-er-nee” geezer…..bah humbug!!!

  23. Glottal stops are common in both British and American English. All of the t’s in ‘Put that plate back’ could perfectly well be pronounced as glottal stops. American English, I’ve noticed, is particulary keen on glottal stops before syllabic /n/ ; Martin, and important, for example.

    What’s become more prevalent in British English, though, is the glottal stop between two vowel sounds or before syllabic /l/. It sounds ugly to me, but I dare say that all such changes have sounded ugly to people over 40. But language still changes.

  24. I’m aware of two pockets of glottal-stop speech in the Northeast; one in New Britain, Connecticut (which is referred to mockingly by those outside the city as “New Brih-in”) and another in Caldwell, New Jersey. This is from my meagre experience; I suspect the practice is widespread.

    I shall never forgive the British for the plague of “sort of” and “kind of” which has infected American speech to the extent that “like” is the verbal tic of high-school kids. About the same, aren’t they?

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