Wednesday 24 October 2012

slit fricative [t̞]

On a certain social networking site to which I belong, Tim Morley asked
Can someone explain to me, in terms of tongue position or whatever's relevant, the scouse allophone of /t/ that's a sibilant rather than a stop?
A French colleague asked me why a scouser had referred to "The Cass in the Hass", and although I believe I can perceive a difference in the cat-cass minimal pair through the scouse accent (i.e. I don't think it's just context that's allowing me to correctly interpret a homophone), I couldn't actually explain the difference that I believe I'm hearing, which kind of annoyed me to be honest!

So I said

It’s an alveolar slit fricative rather than plosive — a kind of lenition. It can be lenited in some words even further to [h]. See my blog for 15 Nov 2006.

Tim followed up with

By "slit", do you mean simply that there's "only a slit" (i.e. a very narrow gap) between tongue and alveolus? Or is there some fuller meaning that I'm not aware of?

So I clarified.

It means the space between the tongue tip/blade and the alveolar ridge is a left-to-right gap ("slit") rather than the front-to-back "groove" you get in [s]. [θ] and [ð] are dental slit fricatives, [s] and [z] are alveolar groove fricatives. The Scouse thing combines the shape of the first pair with the place of the second.

Then Tim discovered a Wikipedia claim that "no language is known to contrast a grooved and non-grooved sibilant".

Does this mean that Scouse would constitute a counterexample to this supposed universal and thereby disprove it? Hardly. I pointed out that

the nongrooved sibilant is not the default realization nor the most frequent realization of Scouse /t/. […The opposition exemplified in hit/hiss' operates] only in final or prevocalic position, and it’s not the only possibility even there. Note that in hit back (vs hiss back) you probably wouldn't get the slit fricative, but a no-audible-release [ʔ], [p] or [t].

Kevin Watson adds:

In a word like quite or internet you'd get a slit-t (of varying kinds, I've called them e.g. 'dynamic sibilants' and 'canonical sibilants' although I'm not happy with those terms) but in what or biscuit you'd get [h].

This same [] articulation of /t/ in postvocalic position is found in Irish English (“soft t”). Indeed, it’s one of the most indexical features of a (southern) Irish accent, and in Liverpool obviously derives from Irish influence.


  1. This [t̞] is also heard in the local accents of the Potteries and of Middlesbrough. I know that Middlesbrough received large numbers of Irish immigrants during its expansion, but I'm not sure if the same can be said of the Potteries.

    The phoneme /t/ seems to have a large number of variants for a consonant in English.

    ɛd e:vja:d

    1. It seems to me that this lenition can even be found in RP. Here is a man who I believe is a speaker of RP. Listen to the way he says great (text) at 0:21, poet at 0:35 and later at 0:40. Not to get too off topic, but the /d/ at the end of period at 0:32 sounds lenited too.

      ˈdʒeɪsən riːd

    2. I think that this man would be near-RP. He says the word "one" several times, always as [wɔn]. I suspect that he's from around Liverpool or Stoke (which both use this pronunciation), and just doesn't have a very strong accent.

      ɛd e:vja:d

    3. I thought I probably missed something. He does have an Irish surname, so Liverpool seems like a possibility. If what you say is true, then it's interesting to me that he still has that feature.

      I just watched more of the video and heard him say [ˈsɪŋgə] for singer at 3:47. That makes it more likely that he's from the west or north west Midlands. Although I have heard an occasional [sɪŋg] from Sheffielders.

      ˈdʒeɪsən riːd

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  3. How likely is /d/ to be similarly lenited?

    On a different note, is Scouse /t/ really alveolar? Or is it dental (different from [θ] still, which of course involves projecting the tongue out of the mouth)? I have tried this 'slit fricative' and I seem to get most of my phonation from my teeth, unlike the plosive /t/ (or rather the affricate), which clearly are alveolar -- it could just be oral biology but I would like this confirmed, anyway.

    1. Yes, it does occasionally happen in /d/. You can hear it in recording from a council estate in Liverpool. It's detailed in the linguistic information.

      I get the impression that it's much less common in /d/ than in /t/ and /k/ in the Scouse accent, and I don't think that I've ever heard it in any other accent of English.

      ɛd e:vja:d

    2. P.S. I should have posted the recording rather than the linguistic info. It's not long until she says "playground", and you can hear it on the final /d/.

    3. You can hear it a few times in the video I linked to above.

    4. I have a sound like this in my speech (near RP northern English, not Liverpool), generally only between vowels, e.g. letter. (Where Scouse stands out to my ears is when it uses it word-finally.)

      Not only is it not dental, but it actually seems more retracted than a normal alveolar, heading towards apical postalveolar.

      dʒɔnəθən dʒɔːdn

    5. @ JHJ: That's interesting that you have this feature. Is it just in /t/, or is it in /p/ or /d/ as well?

      You've said a number of times that you live in South Yorkshire. Are there many other people there who have this feature? There was a mass migration of Staffordshire coal miners to South Yorkshire at the end of the 19th century (See here!), so this feature might've migrated from the Potteries with the miners.

      ɛd e:vja:d

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