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Take My Word

Forget the I's; Try Some Bette Davis Ts

September 18, 1985|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

A couple of weeks ago, this space touched on the short shrift we too often give the solid old letter T. If you don't normally say "ledder" for "letter," you're a rarity, and if you're strict enough to say "lect-ure" instead of "leck-sher," you're almost weird. The sad fact is that even "strict" is unusual. "Strick" is the norm; and the T in "strictly" is strickly defunk.

T has a broad-shouldered, supportive strength--a solidity of form and function: "T-Square," "To a T," the super-solid, gold-bedizened "Mr. T," and even the little tee you rest your golf ball on all say prop, mainstay, brace--that sort of thing. Perhaps that's one reason for the concern shown over T's loss of respect, which evidently is shared by at least a small army of vigilant devotees of clear diction.

It was Emery R. Walker who first wrote me a couple of letters expressing this T-concern. I wrote a piece on it, and that piece brought a number of sympathetic responses.

Elsa H. Butts says: "I have been on the preservation of the 'T' warpath for several years, but it appears to be a losing battle. My husband and I have seen 'Congradulations' displayed in public on a banner outside a large hall in Del Rio, Tex. And I had a young lady in my office who spelled the word 'congradjulations' in a letter.

Confused With Graduation

"I think, among other things, 'congratulations' is confused with 'graduation,' causing at least some of the mispronunciation and misspelling."

She's probably right about "graduation." I suspect its close relative, "gradual," is part of the problem too. The understandable tendency we all have to pronounce "tu" as "chew" whenever and wherever it appears doesn't help either.

Steve Allen, who probably has as good an ear for the sounds, sense and nonsense of words as anyone, wrote to say, "Applause, applause for your defense of the good old letter T, which many Americans have a tendency to swallow when it appears at the end of words.

"In discussing the problem with assorted actors on my TV shows over the years, I have asked them to give me what I call 'the Bette Davis T.' Ms. Davis still holds the American T-pronouncing championship, and long may she wave. Her famous line, 'What a dump!' would not have seemed nearly as arresting had its first word been pronounced as wha ."

Right on! (That's right on, not ride on.) I'd like to see an annual award for "Best Bette Davis T," perhaps in conjunction with the Academy Awards. Incidentally, Children, that is definitely "Bet-te," not "Beddy."

Steve Allen speaks of the wha . He has a good point. What is often said as wha . In the Bette Davis line, though, I think lesser T-sayers than Ms. Davis would more likely say, "Wodda dump!". Wha finishes in empty air like that, especially in such classic phrases as, "Wha samadda?" and "Wha sup?"; at other times, it closes with a glottal stop. A glottal stop is that little quasi-consonant that happens in your throat when you say things like "Oh-oh!" Unless you have a strange way of saying "Oh-oh!", each of those "Oh"s starts with a glottal stop. The first, unaspirated "uh" in "uh-huh" always starts with a glottal stop.

Rendered as Apostrophes

Glottal stops are sometimes rendered as apostrophes in writing. Many years ago, I lived in Greenwich Village, My apartment was an easy walk from a section of New York known as Little Italy, which was pronounced "Li'le I'ly" (if you utter a glottal stop at those apostrophes, you have the right idea). The Scottish accent is heavy with glottal stops. In fact "Scot," in Scottish, has no closing T--only a glottal stop. Unless my memory is even worse than I suspect, there was a Danny Kaye movie years ago in which he did a number as a kilted Scot, and he went through a fairly long and quite unintelligible monologue consisting almost entirely of glottal stops. It was wonderful. If my memory actually is out of whack again, and there was no such number, there should have been.

Personally, I like the Scottish burr, glottal stops and all, but for good American speech, a d , a glottal stop, or, God knows, dead air can't fill in properly for a solid, muscular Mr. T, or even a cheap plastic tee. Let's hear it for the Bette Davis T.

Be tt er ye t , le t 's hear more Be tt e Davis T's in our everyday speech.

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