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Utahns who drop the T in words like 'mountain' not so unusual, Y study says

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

Utahns are known for their unique English. However, linguistic habits in the Beehive state — like dropping the T in mountain — may not be as uncommon as many think.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — Many Utahns drop the T in in the middle of words, and some make fun of them for it. But BYU researchers say the practice may not be as unusual as many here think.

Dropping the T from words like "mountain" may seem to California emigrants and others who move to the state like a unique Utah feature. There also are some who look down their noses or poke fun at it.

However, in the latest issue of the journal American Speech, BYU professor David Eddington and linguistics student Matthew Savage found it to be common around the United States.

"With this T dropping, people in Utah are very conscious and aware of it," said Savage, who was an undergraduate student at the time of the research. "They will point out if they speak to each other when they speak that way ... and there's a real stigma attached to it. It's more in the public eye here than normal speech phenomenons."

Eddington grew up in Utah but eventually moved and lived out of the state for much of his life before coming back; he immediately noticed people commenting on the T dropping in Utahns' speech.

"At first it didn't make sense what people were saying," he said. "The T is not really deleted. It just makes a different sound. Dropping the T is just common American. You say 'batman' and 'football' with that same sound. ... It really surprised me.

"We started to think, 'there's got to be something going on' and we investigated further."

The team made up a passage that had 25 words containing Ts and ending in Ns — kitten, cotton and beaten, for example — the typical makeup of a word for the T dropping to take place, Eddington said. They then had Utahns (definition fit if 66 percent of the subject's life was spent in Utah) and non-Utahns read the passage and recorded how each said the words.

One main finding was that when people talked about a T being dropped, it didn't mean the T was being deleted, but instead takes place after a glottal stop, in which air is built up and typically released through the nose.

However, the team discovered Utahns more often released air from the mouth — called an oral release — instead of the nose, Eddington said.

"There is a big trend that is starting with teen women," Eddington said. "The (number) of oral releases peaks in the 20s, hits before the 30s and then goes down. Usually it's the women on the forefront of change with language."

When they started presenting the findings to other linguists, they were told by many that the oral release phenomenon could be found throughout the U.S. but was not typical of any particular region, and appears to have a negative stigma only in Utah, Eddington said. Similar speech patterns in New York, for example, are overlooked or considered normal.

Ten years ago, BYU professor David Bowie showed that the peculiarities some see in "Utah English" are the result of the melting pot of Mormon immigrants that flooded the state in the 1800s and early 1900s. Those who came from England or the American South have had particular, long-standing influence.

BYU Magazine's latest issue provided additional examples of stereotypes of Utah English, and found most originated elsewhere. For example, many young Utahns pronounce "school" as "skull." That practice actually originated in Southern California.

Savage, now in the linguistics program for his master's at BYU, took a class from Eddington while earning his bachelor's and became interested in some of the things the professor was researching. He was asked to join the study shortly afterward.

"It was really exciting. This was something I was going to get involved in at some point, but with this research I was able to get into this earlier perhaps than other people in my situation," Savage said.

"It was a good experience. ... I do feel really lucky ... to have professors who are willing to work on stuff with undergrads. When I talk to people, it's a fairly rare experience, from what I gather, and I feel very fortunate."

Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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