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My understanding of stop in general is that we block the airflow in the vocal tract at the glottis and then release it. For example, when I say the word "pie", I 'stop' the airflow at the lips for the /p/ sound and then immediately release it - which is the reason they are called "stops".

The same thing happens with a glottal stop but instead of the lips, the glottis is used where the stoppage of air occurs. This happens for example with the 't' in the word "water" in many Englishes (Estuarian/Cockney).

Vowels by definition have no stoppage or releasing of airflow but the air moves freely without obstructions.

But what if we have vowels at the beginning of a word?

Example: Enter, important, and even the letter I.

At the start of a sentence, how is "enter" pronounced? Is it /en.tər/ or /ʔen.tər/? And is 'I' /aɪ/ or /ʔaɪ/?

I hear a clear obstruction at the beginning of those words. It is kind of weak sound but it is definitely not a vowel.

Do native speakers do that a lot? It is reasonable because when we are pronouncing words that begin with vowel and there is no other sound before that, our vocal tract is closed so It is possible to have a glottal stop.

Question:

Do we pronounce the vowel at the beginning of the word with a preceding glottal stop?

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    This may happen at the start of a sentence, but not at the start of every word. It would only happen when the airflow needs to be restarted.
    – Peter
    Sep 29, 2020 at 10:32
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    If you say "Cuba alliance" is there a glottal stop between? For me, yes. For others, no; they may separate in another way. I remember (long ago) JFK putting an R sound in for that.
    – GEdgar
    Sep 29, 2020 at 13:53
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    To speak is to exhale. If you are not already speaking or otherwise exhaling, you initiate speech with the glottal stop, and especially to enunciate a vowel. Sep 29, 2020 at 13:58
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    @YosefBaskin: (i) Not all speech is made from an outgoing airstream. Many languages have implosive consonants. (ii) It is entirely possible to pronounce a sentence-initial vowel without a glottal stop (unless you're German). I do it all the time. (iii) Even if you're German, you don't pronounce a glottal stop before a sentence-initial consonant.
    – TonyK
    Sep 29, 2020 at 18:40
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    @YosefBaskin That reasoning seems good if you assume that you normally walk around with your glottis closed. Unfortunately, doing that results in death. Pre-utterance your glottis is open and not closed. This is so you can breathe. Word-initial glottal stops normally involve the sudden closure of the glottis, which is then followed by a build up of pulmonic air behind the closure. Consonant initial utterances don’t begin with any glottal closure or with a glottal stop. Dec 7, 2020 at 2:14

2 Answers 2

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Do we pronounce the vowel at the beginning of the word with a preceding glottal stop?

I don't know if it's always a glottal stop, but yes, English speakers usually pronounce words beginning with a vowel, with a glottal stop when following a pause. It's what is called a hard attack.
RP's use of 'hard attack' was described by John Wells in Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.

Geoff Lindsey observes that the insertion of glottal stops before initial vowels is more common now than it was in RP.

I can think of numerous situations where a glottal stop replaces word-initial vowel. Most of the time when the answer to a question is only 'I am', 'he is', 'she is', 'they are' etc., people almost always pronounce the 'am', 'is', 'are' with a glottal stop:

  • I [ʔ]am.
  • He [ʔ]is.
  • They [ʔ]are.

Geoff Lindsey in his book English after RP (p91) writes:

Glottal stops are sometimes used as a way to begin a word-initial vowel. In RP, this was seen mainly as a way to emphasize the word. Today, initial glottal stops are also quite often used unemphatically, to separate words in connected speech. [...]

Another use of the glottal stop is as a way of beginning a vowel at the start of a word. This is referred to as ‘hard attack’.


And from Wikipedia:

Often a glottal stop happens at the beginning of vowel phonation after a silence.



So 'enter', 'apple' and 'I' at the beginning of a word after silence may be pronounced:

  • Enter -> [ˈʔentə(r)]
  • Apple -> [ʔæpl]
  • I -> [ˈʔaɪ]

In English, the above pronunciations are the 'allophones' of /ˈentə(r)/, /æp(ə)l/ and /aɪ/ respectively (i.e. they do not change meaning).

Now consider a language where /ˈʔentə(r)/ and /ˈentə(r)/ have different meanings. Thus, the glottal stop in that language will be realised as a different phoneme.


As per Wikipedia article on glottal stop:

Additionally, there is the glottal stop as a null onset for English, in other words, it is the non-phonemic glottal stop occurring before isolated or initial vowels (for example, representing uh-oh!, [ˈʌʔoʊ] and [ˈʔʌʔoʊ] are phonemically identical to /ˈʌ.oʊ/).

'Non-phonemic' means that the addition of a glottal stop does not change the meaning of the word i.e. the glottal stop is not a phoneme in English. So for example [ˈʔaɪz] and [ˈaɪz] have the same meaning and are the allophones of /aɪz/ ('eyes').

According to a Wikipedia article on null onset:

Some languages forbid null onsets. In these languages, words beginning in a vowel, like the English word at, are impossible.

This is less strange than it may appear at first, as most such languages allow syllables to begin with a phonemic glottal stop.

Whereas in English, the distinction is phonetic, not phonemic i.e. /ˈæpl/ and [ˈʔæpl] have the same meaning.

From the same Wikipedia article:

In English, a word that begins with a vowel may be pronounced with an epenthetic glottal stop when following a pause, though the glottal stop may not be a phoneme in the language.

Few languages make a phonemic distinction between a word beginning with a vowel and a word beginning with a glottal stop followed by a vowel, since the distinction will generally only be audible following another word. However, Maltese and some Polynesian languages do make such a distinction, as in Hawaiian /ahi/ "fire" and /ʔahi/ "tuna".

In Hawaiian, the distinction is phonemic i.e. /ahi/ and /ʔahi/ have different meanings.



Note that word-medial vowels are not often pronounced with a glottal stop, but it doesn't mean they don't occur. As I explained above, 'I am', 'he is', 'they are' etc., are usually pronounced with a glottal stop.
In RP, saw Anna is often pronounced with an intrusive R; however, most of the time, people pronounce Anna with a glottal stop.


From the same book of Geoff Lindsey (p92):

Hard attack, on the other hand, creates a separating break between the words, ɑj[ʔ]am. This can be heard commonly today before words which are not particularly important, including function words, and which are not being emphasized. Here are real examples from TV news:

the murder[ʔ]of a British couple. there[ʔ]are[ʔ]already reports

In neither of these examples were the words following the glottal stops given special accentuation. Nonetheless, such non-emphatic use of hard attack is more common before stressed than unstressed vowels, and is often used on the strong rather than weak forms of function words.


Note that /slashes/ are used for phonemic data while [square brackets] are used for phonetic data (or for allophones).

- In English, [ˈʔæpl] and [ˈæpl] have the same meaning (phonetic)
- In Hawaiian, /ahi/ and /ʔahi/ have different meanings (phonemic)

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  • Any chance you can provide audio samples of minimal pairs? Sep 29, 2020 at 23:01
  • @Acccumulation There’s one or two here (/ʔai/ vs /ai/), though it’s a little bit hard to hear in the audio.
    – bradrn
    Sep 30, 2020 at 2:47
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    You say ‘English speakers usually pronounce words beginning with a vowel’. Personally, I know that isn’t always the case in my own English — generally, I’ll almost always pronounce words starting with a low vowel with a glottal stop, but as the vowel becomes higher the glottal stop becomes less common. (So I’ll usually say [ˈʔæpɯˑ] ‘apple’ but [ˈɪndijɐ] ‘India’.) Between words I’m most likely to use an intrusive ‘r’ rather than a glottal stop, e.g. [ðəˈmɜːdəɻʷəv] ‘the murder‿of’, though it’s possible in some cases e.g. [oːwmɞ͡ʉstˢˈ(ʔ)owæ͡iz] ‘almost always’.
    – bradrn
    Sep 30, 2020 at 2:54
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    You say: Most of the time when the answer to a question is only 'I am', 'he is', 'she is', 'they are' etc., people almost always pronounce the 'am', 'is', 'are' with a glottal stop:. <--Erm, no this is completely incorrect. Most people use a small [j]-like or, in the case of you are [w]-like articulation to separate the two vowels. As you have written about elsewhere on this site! Dec 2, 2020 at 0:23
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    In the U.S., we often separate a vowel at the end of a word from a vowel at the beginning of the next word (like draw out) with a glottal stop. But I think only people with heavy German accents use glottal stops if the preceding word ends in a consonant. Oct 14, 2021 at 13:43
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I disagree with the mainstream view that a vowel-initial word may begin with a null onset. It seems very clear to me that any vowel must begin with some kind of glottal stop consonant. A vowel beginning by itself is a logical impossibility, much like how a moving object can never go instantly from stationary to a certain speed. In regards to any contrast between ‘apple’ with an initial stop and (supposedly) without, I would argue that the contrast is simply between a weak stop and a strong stop.

A vowel is a smooth and continuous vibration. It cannot be smooth and continuous when it begins, much like how the initial part of a marker-pen line or paintbrush-stroke cannot be smooth and even like the rest of the line. The extra-dark, turbulent ink mark you see at the beginning of the stroke is equivalent to the (supposedly non-existent) consonant that begins a vowel. You can feel the momentary turbulence/friction in your throat when you start to say ‘apple’. If you record yourself saying a vowel, and you look at the bar-chart thing (like on voice memos on iphone), you’ll see that the onset is always louder than the rest of the vowel, which is of constant volume. The initial ‘burst’ comes from the glottal-stop (or similar) consonant.

This is probably the reason why so many non-Latin alphabets have a special consonant symbol for words that (from our point of view) begin with a vowel. We call them zero consonants, but in fact they reflect the acoustic reality of vowels beginning with consonants.

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