Uh-Oh! Those Ghastly Glottals

This is generally a blog about singing, but my ears have been tuned to speech recently. The past two weeks I have been recovering from surgery and listening to NPR and cable TV more than usual.  Something is bothering me.  My local NPR station recently got a new morning host, and sometimes her delivery bothers me enough that I have to turn it off. But even the national correspondents sometimes do this.  It’s annoying. It’s ugly.  It’s unhealthy for the voice.

What am I talking about? I am referring to the excess use of glottal onsets in speech, especially the approach to a word beginning with a vowel or silent consonant

By onset, we mean  the beginning of a word or phrase.  There are several types of onsets.

  1. Glottal:  In a glottal onset, air is built up by closing or squeezing the vocal folds and then releasing the sound, yielding a percussive onset (think of “uh-oh,” “action,” or “honor” which has a silent “h”).  The onset can sound almost percussive.

Ex. 1 “uh-oh,” “action,” “honor”

  1. Aspirated:  An aspirated onset starts with the release of air (think of the letter “h”) at the beginning of a word (think of “happy” or “who”).  This onset has a more or less breathy quality.

Ex. 2 “happy” “who” “how”

  1. Elision: An elision is a connection where the last sound of one word connects into the next.  The glottal onset is avoided by connecting the previous word to the word that starts with a vowel or vowel sound.

 Ex. 3 “fried egg,” “political action”

In some languages, for example German, glottal onsets are required.  In English, however, we have some options as to when to use glottals.  For smooth, pleasant delivery, and to be kind to the voice, glottals should be avoided unless necessary to comprehend a word or phrase. Such cases are relatively rare in English, but here are a few examples.  You can hear that sometimes you can double or re-initiate the connecting consonant for clarity.

            Ex. 4 “Bob aches” “Bob bakes”

            “Rick aired” “Rick cared”

            “Janice owes” “Janice sews”

            “Ed itched” “Ed ditched”

            “ Bill owned”  “Bill loaned”

            “Pat ought”  “Pat taught”

             “Annette owes”  “Annette tows”

Most of the time, especially in presentation (as opposed to casual, conversational speech), it is desirable to keep the flow and continuity of a sentence or phrase.  Glottals disturb the flow of speech.

Ex. 5  with glottal and with elision

            “The FBI”

            “for artificial intelligence”

            “WBUR in Boston”

            “near 80 degrees”

Bonnie’s Bugaboo:  the word “the”

Actually, we have two ways to pronounce this little word:  “thuh” or “thee.” Generally if the word following “the” starts with a consonant, we use “thuh”:  This is usually done correctly.

            Ex 6 “the bird”  “the dog” “the whole” “the youth”

But if the word following “the” starts with a vowel or vowel sound, we should use “thee.”

Ex 7 phrases with elision and with less desirable glottal

            “thee apple” not “thuh apple”

            “thee end” not “thuh end”

            “thee islands” not “thuh islands”

            “thee understanding” not “thuh understanding”

As a final thought, many speech pathologists believe that too many or too harsh glottals can tire the voice, or in some cases even contribute to vocal injury.  Singers who present with vocal difficulties often find that they are due to poor speech habits like excess glottals, which then affect the voice during singing.

For a pleasant flow and your vocal health, even when you use glottals, make them less percussive.   Try saying “Iron it out!” with no glottals!





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