Wednesday 25 December 2013

a li'le bi' of bu'er

The IPA symbol (no. 113) for the glottal plosive is this: [ʔ] This isn't breaking news, is it?
But there have been other suggestions. 
A. M. Bell in his Visible Speech of 1867 describes the glottal "catch" (p. 60) like this:

 The symbol he uses looks like the Greek letter χ or two round brackets (see comments below). In his list of consonant symbols on p. 93 we find a sample word written <buʼer>:

Here Bell indicates the glottal plosive by an apostrophe.

A. J. Ellis in the 4th volume of his Early English pronunciation of 1875 quotes Bell's example on p. 1344, but he uses the semicolon [;] for the glottal stop:

Bell is once again mentioned in Sweet's Handbook of phonetics of 1877 on p. xvi and p. 7. He calls the sound "glottal catch" and uses the symbol [x] for it:

In the 5th edition of his Grundzüge der Phonetik of 1901 Eduard Sievers states on p. 278 that the glottal stop ("Kehlkopfverschluss", which Sievers also calls "Stosston"), for which he uses the symbol [ʾ], replaces an oral closure in some English accents:

Henry Sweet in his Sounds of English of 1908 uses the symbol [!] to indicate a glottal stop:

Daniel Jones in The Pronunciation of English (I have access to the 2nd ed. of 1914) uses the familiar glottal stop symbol (see p. xvi):

This blog posting is greatly indebted to Bjørn Ståhlhane Andrésen’s book Pre-glottalization in English Standard Pronunciation (Oslo, New York, 1968).


  1. Two observations about Bell’s description and symbol:

    1. More posterior stop contoids can be produced, though they are not known to be used as consonants in any language. I am talking about oesophageal stops, or belches.

    2. To me the symbol Bell uses look like two joined brackets )( symbolising the glottal closure rather than Greek χ (chi).

    1. Re 1: breaking wind can sound like a stop as well.
      Re 2: the symbol could be made up of a closing and an opening parenthesis.

  2. Thanks for the extensive collection of quotes on 19th c. glottal stops in English. There are one or two hints that glottal stops occurred in a few unnamed English dialects, but they all concur on quoting a Scottish example. The reason might be simple. Bell was Scottish himself and so took an example near at home, while Sweet and Sievers spread some of his ideas, so they followed suit. I don't now how Ellis regarded him. Ellis is on my list of things to do, to see how he reports glottal stops in various dialects. Another possibly simple reason is that glottal stops really might have started in Scotland. I'm puzzled why Sievers and Sweet were noncommittal about identifying other English dialects. In the later (1909) quote he also includes North English.

    I agree with Mythoman that Bell's symbol looks like round brackets back-to-back. Bell's symbols were composed of geometric shapes, that could be combined into more complex figures to represent various articulations. His symbols weren't taken from alphabetic characters.

    1. Yes Sidney, that’s true. But even without knowing that Bell didn’t use alphabetic characters it is easy to tell that this symbol isn’t a Greek χ. Any British (and probably any European) foundry in the mid to late 19th c. had Greek fonts at its disposal that perfectly suited its Roman fonts, since most educated readers were still fluent in the language of New Testament and the Greek Classics. Bell’s symbol however is as high as cap-line, so it can’t possibly be a χ.

    2. The symbol Bell uses does not only have an ascender, i.e. reaching the cap-line, but also a descender, which a round bracket would not have. But anyway, it look more like a ligature of two round brackets than a Greek chi.

  3. Re-reading the above quotes it struck me that nobody mentions that [ʔ] substituted the voiceless alveolar stop. Instead Sweet (1877) cites Bell and talks about “voiceless stops” in general, and both Sievers (1901) and Sweet (1908) talk about “Mundverschlusslaut/mouth-stops.” Are there historical examples of [k] being substituted by [ʔ]?

    1. Bell did at least choose an example with [ʔ] for /t/, and an intervocalic one at that, 'butter'. Wells (1982, Accents of English 2) records that [ʔ] for any voiceless stop is particularly typical of traditional Cockney (roughly the inner East End of London), and also gives examples of [ʔ] for fricatives as well.

      I dream of seeing reports from earlier centuries. The best I can hope for is that Ellis might have something. Wells does quote a number of literary references to Cockney. Several from Dickens and Shaw, but they have nothing on glottal stops at all, so no examples of [ʔ] for /k/.

  4. John Wells has a blog page on 26 April 2012 entitled 'Teens', where he responds to a query about possible initial glottal stops. All the examples concern /t/.
    Start here and navigate from the archive list on the right: