Does New American English Originate in Utah?

While most Americans replace the T sound in words like ‘mountain’ through their noses, Utahns replace it through their mouths, say linguists at the Brigham Young University.

While most Americans replace the T sound in words like ‘mountain’ through their noses, Utahns replace it through their mouths, say linguists (Brigham Young University)

“Most Americans T drop, but Utahns do it a little differently,” explained Prof David Eddington, lead author of the study published in the journal American Speech.

“The T doesn’t actually disappear. It’s transformed into a glottal stop. What happens is you get some air built up, but it’s being blocked off, and when you release that, the air comes through your nose. But what we’ve found with T dropping in Utah is that people are releasing it through their mouths instead of their noses.”

The linguists studied a group of individuals of various ages and from various locations. They gave them a passage to read which included words that had a T in the middle and usually an N at the end and recorded the readings. When examining the differences in pronunciation, they found that the glottal stop with a release of air through the mouth was slightly more common among Utahns in general, but vastly more common among 20-and-30-year-old women who had spent the majority of their lives in Utah.

“Whenever there is any sort of variation in language, when you start looking closer there is some sort of social attachment – certain social groups using them more,” Prof Eddington said. “One thing linguists have found is that when there’s a new process in language, it’s usually young women who do it. They’re usually at the forefront.”

An obvious example of this was the 1980s Valley Girl phenomenon in California. Young women coined slang words and a vocal style that became well known nationwide.

Dropping the T with a release of air through the mouth is becoming more common nationwide.

Prof Eddington pointed to examples of Dora the Explorer’s pronunciation of ‘button’ to Chris Rock’s pronunciation of ‘Bill Clinton.’ The spreading of the trend could be due to a number of factors, but while a lot of people do it, it’s the Utahns who get noticed.

“There are all sorts of interesting linguistic behaviors out there,” Prof Eddington said, “and what happens is someone will start noticing one or commenting on it, and it becomes either stigmatized or it becomes prestige. That seems to have happened in Utah. T dropping is all over, but for some reason it’s stigmatized in Utah.”

“A lot of people hate it when people talk that way drop the T,” added co-author Matthew Savage. “It’s always fascinating to me, and a little confusing, when people have such strong opinions about other people’s speech, especially when those opinions amount to the speech being right or wrong.”

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Bibliographic information: Eddington D & Savage M. 2012. American Speech, vol. 87