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.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  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)?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.