Young people in Liverpool are using a lorra t-to-r compared to previous generations
Cilla Black’s well-known catchphrase of the 1970s contains the Liverpool English ‘t-to-r’ feature. This is where, in connected speech, the /t/ sound in words such as lot and get become an /r/ sound; for example: get off sounds like ‘gerroff’ and lot of sounds like ‘lorra’. This pronunciation feature has been observed in Tyneside and West Yorkshire English, as well as in Liverpool.
Lynn Clark and Kevin Watson investigated its use in recordings of Liverpool English, noting that it is often in competition with the glottal stop (such as ge’off) as well as with /t/. However, they also noted that not every word or phrase that could undergo t-to-r does so in natural speech. Also, other research has shown that some words are more likely to undergo t-to-r than others. When this feature was investigated in West Yorkshire English by Judith Broadbent, she proposed that words which were high frequency (i.e. words which are very common in language, like but) are more likely to undergo and preserve t-to-r than those which are lower frequency (i.e. not so common in language, like set).
Clark and Watson wanted to test this idea in their data, as well as seeing whether there was a change occurring in Liverpool English towards one particular pronunciation. Across three locations in Liverpool, they found that the recordings of people born in the early 1900s showed significantly less t-to-r than their modern recordings of adolescents. The adolescents were extremely consistent with their application of t-to-r, even preferring it over the glottal stop in contexts where it comes between vowels and at the end of a word, such as in a phrase like a lot of. It looks, then, as though a language change has taken place in Liverpool over the course of the last century.
Looking more closely at the variability shown by the speakers in the older recordings, Clark and Watson tested to see if word frequency was playing a part in their t-to-r use. In order to calculate how common a word is in the language, they used the British National Corpus to decide whether a word should be treated as high or low frequency. They showed that t-to-r only occurred in words which were classified as high frequency (like bit) and not in low frequency words. Therefore, this supported the above claim by Broadbent. However, when they looked at only the high frequency words, they found that, even if a word was more common, it didn’t necessarily mean it had the highest rate of t-to-r. The variability in the older recordings confirms that there was a change in progress, towards increasing use of t-to-r, but the pattern of change is more complex than a simple frequency correlation.
The researchers concluded that, while a broad frequency comparison showed a strong difference between whether a word could undergo t-to-r or not, the behaviour of individual high frequency words was variable. Other linguistic factors, such as the grammatical class of the words and the type of vowel preceding the /t/, did not affect the extent of t-to-r. Therefore, even though t-to-r variation is affected by how often we say and hear a particular word, we need to look more deeply into the mechanisms of our linguistic systems in order to find the answers to what exactly causes a person to say a lorra cards but not a serra cards.
Clark, L. and Watson, K. (2011) Testing Claims in a Usage-Based Phonology with Liverpool English t-r; English Language and Linguistics 15: 523-547
Written by Jenny Amos