Friday, 18 June 2010

resolution of syllabic consonants

The other thing that Denis Lyons (blog, 16 June) told me he was concerned about is what he describes as the use of
a pronounced "t" sound for the more silent version (in words such as Britain, little, etc.) …
I think what he is referring to is actually a change in the treatment of the nasal or lateral that follows the t, namely the replacement of the syllabic n or l by a sequence ən or əl respectively.

Hence instead of a nasally released plosive in Britain ˈbrɪtn̩ (the ‘more silent’ version) we get an orally released plosive (the ‘pronounced’ version) followed by a schwa, thus ˈbrɪtən. Correspondingly, instead of a laterally released plosive in little ˈlɪtl̩ we get a centrally released plosive likewise followed by a schwa, thus ˈlɪtəl (or further development to ˈlɪto and the like).

The same thing happens with d in this environment, as in garden and middle, where alongside traditional ˈɡɑːdn̩ and ˈmɪdl̩ you can also hear ˈɡɑːdən and ˈmɪdəl, ˈmɪdo. It’s not primarily a change in the plosive as such but a change from a syllabic consonant to a schwa plus nonsyllabic consonant.

This tendency to avoid nasal/lateral release has indeed often been commented on. People have sometimes characterized the result as sounding ‘childish’.

There is also a third possibility with the t in words such as Britain, little. That is the use of a glottal stop ʔ rather than an alveolar t before the syllabic consonant, giving ˈbrɪʔn̩, ˈlɪʔl̩. The former often seems to pass unnoticed; the latter may attract attention.
Cruttenden says (Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, seventh edition, p. 180):
Use of [ʔ] to replace /t/ [sic] … before syllabic [n̩] … was until recently stigmatized as non-RP but … [is] now acceptable in London Regional RP.
He refers to Anne Fabricius’s article ‘Ongoing change in modern RP: evidence for the disappearing stigma of t-glottalling’, English Worldwide 23: 115-136.


  1. One thing I've always been uncertain on is the question of a "linking l" in l-vocalizing dialects like Cockney or Estuary. How exactly would speakers of these dialects pronounce things like "feel it", "Paul is", "Little Italy" or "Middle Earth"?

  2. There is also a fourth possibility, an orally released glottal stop (ˈbrɪʔən). I think I've heard ‹Manhattan› being pronounced with -ˈhæʔən in rap music.

  3. Or dropping the stop altogether, for that matter, especially if you have to say the same phrase a thousand times a day. There's a tube station between Oxford Circus and Holborn at the road named after the boxer Tom Corr, for instance.

  4. A bit off topic but anyway -
    if a word like 'called' is pronounced with its L vocalised eg someone called me -
    would 'd' in 'called' be dropped or not?
    (kɔod mi - or - kɔo mi)?

  5. @ Lazar Taxon:

    There is some variation from speaker to speaker regarding when /l/ is vocalised.

    In my experience, it is more common for there to be no l-vocalisation when a monosyllable ending in /l/ comes before a monosyllable beginning with a vowel:

    "fee/l/ it", "it fe/l/ off" etc. (but I've also heard "fee/o/ it", "fe/o/ off" etc.)

    When a word of more than one syllable ending in /l/ comes before another word beginning with a vowel, the /l/ is either realised as [ɫ] or [o], depending on the speaker (in my experience, both are as common as each other, regardless of age or gender):

    "Litt/o/ Italy" or "Litt/l/ Italy", "Midd/o/ Earth" or "Midd/l/ Earth", "e-mai/o/ address" or "e-mai/l/ address".

    Utterance-finally and before a consonant, /l/ is always vocalised:
    "I nearly fe/o/", "he/o/p".

    I've found all the above to be true of all regional accents in southern England.

    Hope this helps!

  6. @ anonymous, 11:09:

    the /d/ in "called me" would not be dropped:
    /kɔːod/ me

  7. Two points:

    1) There's a demonstration on my own blog ('') of syllabic and non-syllabic consonants, using a clip from a recent BBC Radio 2 trail. I find the length of the schwa startling.

    2) If word-final /l/ before a vowel changes to /o/, then this opens the way for a glide [w]. Could it be argued that all adjacent vowels in PopBrit show either a [w] glide or an [r] glide?

  8. @Derek Rogers: or [j] glide?

  9. Lipman mentions Tom Corr Road but this is not new. When my father was a teacher in Croydon in the '30's and '40's he would relate how he would ask a boy where he lived and would receive the reply "Forneaf, sir". (Thornton Heath). As he was a Welsh speaker it probably struck him more forcibly than it would a native Londoner.

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  11. sounding 'childish',

    does it refer to the use of syllabic consonant(nasal, lateral release)

    or shewa + nonsyllabic consonant( tendancy to avoid nasal, lateral release)?