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BYU professor researches Utah linguistic quirk

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 11:44 p.m. MDT

PROVO — A linguistic quirk of many Utahns that could be called "The Case of the Missing T" is getting some attention from academia.

The unusual pronunciation of certain words, most notably such words as "mountain," "Layton," "kitten" and "button," is certainly not unique to Utah residents. But research by Brigham Young University linguistics professor David Eddington indicates that young Utah females are particularly prone to not pronounce the "T."

"We found cases of it in New York, Michigan, Southern California," Eddington said. "But in Utah what we found is that generally it's younger people and especially women."

Many Utahns have undoubtedly heard it on the streets and in the malls, especially in places where young women gather.

In an encounter with a reporter at Orem's University Mall, native Utahn Jamie Sorenson read from a special text prepared by Eddington to test for the quirky pronunciation.

"I know it's been awhile since I've written," Sorenson read from Eddington's text. "In the last letter I told you about the kitten I found. ... He was in pretty bad shape and it looks like he's been beaten." But her pronunciation of the words "written," "kitten" and "beaten" were more like "RIH-un," "KIH-un" and "BEE-un."

When asked if she realized she was using a non-standard pronunciation, Sorenson laughed and said, "Yes, I totally do. I realize I have the Utah accent. It's perfect. My husband makes fun of me all the time."

For his research project, Eddington recorded 57 volunteers reading the same text. It's loaded with words that have one or more "Ts" followed by a syllable ending with an "N."  Eddington became interested because he heard Utahns complaining about the recently evolved pronunciation.

"Every (other) place I've been, people say 'kitten,'" Eddington said. "And then I listened more (in Utah) and started to hear 'KIH-un.' Ahhh! that's what they're talking about."

Nearly all Americans brush past the 't' sound in such words. But some people seem to stumble over it enroute to the "N" sound.

"The 'T' is there," Eddington said. "But instead of being pronounced up in the mouth, it's pronounced down in the throat. So we call it a glottal stop."

Utahns aren't the only ones who do it. Eddington pointed out an animated cartoon in which a character introduces a cat named Mittens. "MIH-uns is a cat," the character said. "MIH-uns es un gato."

Another video on YouTube features comedian Chris Rock using a similar pronunciation for the last name of former President Clinton. "Anytime something bad happens," Rock said, it's "good for Bill CLIN-un."

That staccato sound is far more prevalent in Utah than other Western states, according to Eddington's research. He was only able to test volunteers from Western states.

"Generally if someone had lived two-thirds of their life in Utah," Eddington said, "they were more likely to use" the unusual pronunciation.

Males were far less likely than females to do it but Eddington thinks men are likely to follow suit in the future. "Linguists have found that young women are always, or generally, on the forefront of linguistic changes," Eddington said.

"I could see that," Sorenson said with a laugh. "We're pretty cool in Utah. It could be possible they want to be like us."

Of course, no one can say the pronunciation is wrong. It's just that language is always changing. Eddington points out that older people have been complaining about the pronunciation of younger people at almost every point in history.

"You go back to Roman times," Eddington said, "and you hear Romans talking about how the young people don't speak correctly."

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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