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It's just strange to me because "t" is pronounced with the front teeth, while the glottalized "t" is produced with the back of the throat; that seems like quite a noticeable journey that couldn't have happened all at once. If I'm correct, do linguists have any clue what intermediate steps would have been taken, and can someone demonstrate a couple of those pronunciations with English words?

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Speaking as a Londoner, who when not concentrating definitely drops the t, so you get interesting pronunciation on words like water, butter, city. Generally the reason for it amongst those that do it is down to laziness, everyone can pronounce it right, well most people, but don't. You don't have to move your mouth about as much. If I completely freeze up my mouth I can sound like quite a wideboy. –  Orbling Apr 19 '11 at 0:54

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Short answer: The transition from /t/ to glottal stop does not require intermediate steps.

Explanation:

There are three main factors involved in the production of a consonant: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing. The glottalization of /t/ is essentially a loss of place.

/t/ is a voiceless alveolar stop. These three words in the name represent the three main factors. Voiceless means there is no voiced 'hum' (as in /d/). Alveolar means that the sound is produced on the alveolar ridge (the place). Stop (also called plosive) means that the sound is made by a full closure of the oral cavity followed by a burst of air.

/ʔ/ is the (voiceless) glottal stop. As you can see by the name, 2 out of the 3 parts of articulating the sound are the same as /t/. Glottal sounds are produced in the glottis itself.

When a consonant that is normally (or formally) articulated in one part of the mouth is articulated instead in the glottis, this is a form of lenition known as debuccalization. As you can see, lenition and debuccalization are phenomena that occur independently in a vast number of languages. It is essentially a "weakening" of a consonant.

Since this is simply the loss of one feature, there are no intermediate steps — except that, in cases of a total and permanent loss of place in some context within a language, there is usually (if not always) a period where there is free variation between the lenited form and the full form, until eventually the full form becomes so rare it falls out of use.

In American English, we currently have free variation in the way we pronounce /t/ at the end of many words, like get, hat, astronaut, and so on. In careful pronunciation, a full /t/-sound (closure followed by release) is made. But often the /t/ is articulated but never released, and in many dialects (including my own), the /t/ is realized as [ʔ], the glottal stop. So, I often say [gɛʔ], [hæʔ], [æstrənɔʔ], and so on. This is an example of an intermediate stage of lenition. Perhaps, in a couple hundred years, speakers of my dialect will never pronounce the /t/ in that context.

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Are you saying that the trend in human languages is for the lenited form to always triumph over the full form? Wow. Laziness is a human universal. –  Uticensis Apr 19 '11 at 2:16
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@Billare: No, the lenited form doesn't always triumph. In fact, there is the inverse phenomenon called fortition. However, lenition is much more common, so... yeah, kinda :) –  Kosmonaut Apr 19 '11 at 2:23
    
N.B. It can also be argued that alveolar is the "default" place of articulation, so that glottalisation is a "gain" rather than a "loss" of place of articulation. –  Neil Coffey Apr 19 '11 at 4:47
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@Neil Coffey: I guess I can see how one could try to make that claim, but I don't find it very convincing (although maybe there are some good arguments in favor that I don't know of). If alveolar is the default, then one would predict that we would have /t/-insertion in certain places in English, but we don't. However, we do often get /ʔ/-insertion at the beginning of vowel-initial utterances, e.g. /æpəl/ realized as [ʔæpəl]. In dialects that pronounce "the" as [ðə] even before vowel-initial words, again /ʔ/ is inserted to separate the two words ([ðə ʔiɡəl]). –  Kosmonaut Apr 19 '11 at 14:17
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I disagree with this explanation. Physically speaking, you can't have a -voice +plosive without place; there would be no plosion if it isn't stopped somewhere in the vocal tract. Physically it looks like a new (glottal) articulation appears Describing /t/ -> /ʔ/ as a loss of place is phonemically reasonable, but it doesn't explain why this phonemic change occurs (why the loss of one feature results in a new articulation). –  Mechanical snail Aug 24 '12 at 2:04

In American English, word-final stops like /t/ are commonly glottalized, so that "cat" /kæt/ is pronounced [kʰæʔ͡tˢ]. More precisely, it is realized as a co-articulated glottal and alveolar stop.

In many environments, this final stop is unreleased. Acoustically, then, there's little difference between unreleased [ʔ͡t̚] and just a plain glottal stop [ʔ] (it's the /s/-colored release that gives it distinctness), so it's not surprising that the simpler articulation is often used. (The degree this occurs varies considerably by dialect.) The /t/ -> /ʔ/ phenomenon is thus a loss of the alveolar articulation.

A special case is when /t/ is followed by /n/, as in cotton /kɑ.tn/. Plosive + nasal sequences assimilate so that the stop is unreleased; the resulting articulation is alveolarly stopped for the whole duration, during which the nasal passage opens and voicing begins. If the glottis were left open for the whole time, then the pressure from the lungs would produce an uncomfortable nareal plosive when the nasal passage opens; hence it is pronounced glottally stopped. In this case, there isn't even any articulatory difference between /ʔ͡tⁿ/ and /ʔⁿ/.

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I understand how /t/ can become [ʔ], but I have never considered that a co-articulation as you describe. Very interesting. I once did up some analysis of when things like bitten and kitten became glottals, but not various others (like bottom, which stays as a flap), but can't find it now. –  tchrist Aug 24 '12 at 2:38
    
/tn/ are homorganic, /tm/ not. –  Mechanical snail Aug 24 '12 at 2:48

My days of formally studying linguistics are long gone, so I don't speak with the authority of a professional linguist on this particular one. But I've no reason to assume there's some evolutionary process at work here like the Great Vowel Shift.

People just hear a sound and attempt to reproduce it. Sometimes they don't really care if the phoneme they generate isn't identical to the target, so long as it's close enough to be understood. Even parents eventually give up if their kids won't roll their r's or pronounce their aitches properly.

And - this may be purely subjective - I think the glottal stop is just easier in a lot of vocalisations. So long as your audience don't think you're 'common'.

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A lot of people have speech difficulties with t as well. –  Orbling Apr 19 '11 at 0:47
    
@Orbling: I wouldn't exactly say I have difficulties with t, any more than I have difficulties pronouncing the word yes. Maybe glottal stops and yeahs take exactly the same effort as the full enunciations. But because some people say they're indicative of 'lazy' speech, we assume they must be 'easier'. Anyway, I personally can't be bothered to aspirate words like whip, and I couldn't roll my r's even if I wanted to. –  FumbleFingers Apr 19 '11 at 22:28
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@Orbling: My life's work has been to convince people that what they see as my laziness is in fact the dilligent application of advanced optimisation techniques. In pursuit of which I have the most limited phoneme set of anyone I know. Apparently only I can see the advantage of having a single sound to cover fall, four, full, fool, plus several other words. Less is more, I say. –  FumbleFingers Apr 20 '11 at 0:09
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@FumbleFingers: Aye, articulation is overrated. Context is everything. –  Orbling Apr 20 '11 at 7:03
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@Orbling: Absolutely. As a rule, the purpose of speaking is to be understood, so the primary context variable is your audience. I talk loudly to old folks, clearly to foriegners, and sloppily to people who know how I speak. Oh - and gibberish when I'm talking to myself, but that don't count 'cos I know what I mean anyway. –  FumbleFingers Apr 21 '11 at 2:49

The Yorkshire accent misses out 'the' almost completely. If you are writing comedy Yorkshire accent you would write "going on t'internet" but it's pronounced with just a very short stop in place of the 't'

I assume this is because the 'the' is completely unnecessary and so Yorkshire people don't see why they should waste words saying it.

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