Let’s Start With The Glottal Stop

teeth2Back in college, when grunge had only recently displaced the hair bands as alpha dog on the music scene, I found myself at a typical keg party on a Friday night.  There was a guy there who had taken a really potent tab of acid – a soul shredder.  He kept rambling about giant teeth, and insisting Mr. T was Satan.  Everybody assumed he was talking about the actor with the mohawk and gold chains who had played Clubber Lang in Rocky III.  Eventually the guy’s girlfriend had to take him home, presumably to weather the storm in a quiet dorm room.

The following Monday I was in my least favorite class, Linguistics 401.  It was as dry, and as technical as an English course could get.  I remember thinking how the whole point of being an English major was to avoid dry, technical courses.  The professor passionately scribbled the definition of a Glottis across the board: The part of the larynx consisting of the vocal cords and the slit like opening between them. She segued right into the Glottal Stop, which turned out to be: A consonant formed by the audible release of the airstream after complete closure of the glottis.  As an interesting side note, she pointed out that English speakers with a Cockney accent tend to replace the /t/ phoneme with a glottal stop in instances when the /t/ precedes a weak vowel, e.g., Water = Wa’er, and Butter = Bu’er.

“Yeah, that’s frickin’ fascinating,” I thought.  At least I thought I thought it, but the girl sitting next to me gave me a dirty look, so I really must have mumbled it. Embarrassed, I gave her a little wave because I didn’t know what else to do.  In return, she gave me a very condescending, toothy smile.

At that moment, I sensed something profound was close at hand, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint it.  Then it hit me like a battering ram: The /t/ phoneme, the toothy smile, giant teeth, the dude on acid wasn’t talking about Mr. T with the mohawk and gold chains who played Clubber Lang in Rocky III.  He was talking about Mr. T with tall teeth from the Letter People!

If you don’t know about the Letter People, I’ll get you up to speed.  Back in the ’70s schools began to implement a children’s literacy curriculum that was based on twenty-six characters – one for each letter of the alphabet.  The teacher would wheel in the cart with the T.V. set, and then you’d have to sit there and watch these puppets run around and sing songs about letters and the sounds they make.  It was pretty horrible.  Mr. H, with the horrible hair.  You get the point.

The puppets were crudely designed – like the entire budget was ten bucks, and they only spent 7.50 of it. While they all looked a little off, Mr. T looked certifiably insane.  His lips were stretched way back, unable to cover the massive teeth that spanned about two-thirds of his orange, roughly rectangular torso. The guy from the party had kept that memory of the demonic puppet with the tall teeth buried somewhere in his psyche since kindergarten, until he unwittingly resurrected it with about 200 micrograms of a chemical that was derived from a fungus that infects cereal grains. Crazy.

To be fair, the Letter People did what they were supposed to do.  Through them, I learned the the fundamentals of the English language.  I remember how the teacher would make us read flash cards in class, and if you read it right you’d get one point.  Five points got you a lolly pop.  Ten points earned you a Hershey’s Bar.  I was one of three kids who won a Hershey’s Bar.  I split it with my buddy on the bus ride home.  He only managed to get two points.

When I got to my room I ate the last piece of chocolate and thought about the flash cards.  The word that got me the all important tenth point was, Bug.  I could see it in my mind very clearly.  I got a pencil and a piece of paper out of my book bag and wrote the word, Bug. It seemed like a big deal to be able to write down symbols that made a word that other people would understand.  I sensed there was great power in writing.  And I knew I wanted to learn to write more words.

I suppose this blog is another manifestation of that desire to write more words. But I think it’s more than that.  Most of my writing has been a solitary endeavor, but now,  I concede that one’s writing needs to be read by an audience in order to have any real meaning. Otherwise it’s just ink on paper, or pixels on a screen.

So, I thank you for granting me an audience.  Feel free to leave a comment, or ask a question. I’ll try to put something out once or twice a week.