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Uh-oh. How do you pronounce that?

By Anne Curzan


There are many consonants in English in which the spelling/sound correspondence is completely straightforward. Take the sounds for “t” and “d,” pronounced “tuh” and “duh,” respectively.

Less straightforward is the glottal stop. What is the glottal stop? A fair question, given that it does not show up in the English alphabet. To explain this sound, it helps to work with an example.

The universal symbol for glottal stop.

Say the word “uh-oh.” What happens in the middle of that word? Well, what happens is I (and you) cut off the airflow. We stop the stream of sound. This is called a glottal stop. It shows up in words like “mitten” and “button.” Say either word aloud and you’ll realize that, right in the middle of the word, you are cutting off the airflow. You may think you are saying a “t” because the spelling has a “t,” but you are probably not saying “mi-ten” or “bu-ton,” at least in casual speech.

American English speakers tend to notice the glottal stop when they hear speakers of other varieties of English say words like “bottle” or “Seattle” using a glottal stop in ways American English speakers would not. So that is one consonant sound you may not even realize you are saying.

Another one is the sound at the end of the word “king.” You may think you are saying a “g” at the end of the word “king.” But say it aloud and you will realize there is no “g” there. The sound at the end of that word is called “engma” and sounds like the “eng” in “engma.” It is a funny sound when we isolate it like that, but we say that sound all the time.

Engma is the sound at the end of a word like “running.” To hear that, it can help to listen to the different sounds at the end of “running” and “runnin’.”

All of us have dropped the “g” at the end of the word “running.” We dropped it in the Renaissance. Now it’s a question of which nasal sound we make: the funny sound at the end of “king” or an “n” sound?

We all know our ABCs. What I hope I’ve showed you is that, in fact, the sound system of English far surpasses our spelling system.

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.