Saturday 9 October 2010

Liʔle Briʔain

Last Monday, one of my students sent me an e-mail saying he couldn't place the accent of one of the female characters in the British comedy sketch show Little Britain. Little Britain, which was first broadcast on BBC radio and then turned into a TV show, comprises sketches involving exaggerated parodies of British people from all walks of life in various situations familiar to the British.
One of the female characters in the show is the teenage girl Vicky Pollard. She is intended to be a parody of chavs (=young working-class people who are rude and aggressive, have a low level of education, and wear a certain style of fashionable clothing such as trainers, sportswear, and baseball caps) living in the West Country. She speaks unusually quickly which, together with the gossip she comes up with, often confuses or annoys the person in question. Watch this YouTube video.

In his e-mail, my student explained he thought Vicky had a kind of a Cockney accent, probably due to the frequent use of glottal stops in her (most of the times) inarticulate speech. But no! Vicky speaks with a typical Bristolian accent. Now, it is true that both Cockney and some West Country accents make extensive use of glottal reinforcement and glottal replacement, but Cockney is non-rhotic and West Country accents (thus including Bristolian) are rhotic. In the video this is easily noticeable: Vicky's r sounds more like a retroflex approximant [ɻ] and also has strong vowel colouring (in some way reminiscent of General American).
Another feature typical of the city of Bristol and not found in Cockney is the so-called 'Bristol l'. This is a very close final allophone of
ə sounding almost like FOOT - and thus interpreted by non-Bristolian ears as a kind of dark 'l' - in words ending in orthographic a and ia. If you want to know more about Bristol liquids, here's a link to John Wells's blog that you might find very interesting.

For those of you who would like to find out more about Cockney as spoken today in and around London, here's another link to Professor Wells's blog.

As far as RP's use of glottal stops is concerned, glottal replacement is possible before syllabic nasals but not yet accepted before syllabic laterals. In the phrase Little Britain, the phoneme t can be replaced by glottal stop in Britain (and indeed this is the pronunciation many people use in present-day RP) but not in Little, as this would be considered substandard (cf. Cruttenden's (2008) Gimson's Pronunciation of English, p.82). Here's a BBC video for you in which Prime Minister David Cameron pronounces the placename Sutton as ˈsʌʔn̩.
If you want to know more about this fact, read this.


  1. Great job, Alex!!!!!
    I've 3 questions for you:
    1) you said Vicky Pollard accent is "Bristolian"....a West Country accent, well i would like to know if this accent is a "normal Bristolian accent" or a working class one, 'cause you said she is a parody of chavs...
    2) what do you mean when you say "Bristol liquids" ?
    3) In the phrase Little Britain, the phoneme t can be replaced by glottal stop in Britain but not in Little.
    Why? I thought beacuse in Britain T is followed by a vowel while in Little after the T thers's a consonant...well...2 another T and a L....but i'm sure i'm always say..."There's no rule".....
    Thanks a lot.....
    See you soon....

  2. Hi Max!
    Thanks for becoming a member btw!

    Let me answer your questions:

    1) Vicky's accent retains the features typical of Bristolians. There are other characteristics which I haven't mentioned which indicate that a person may be more or less working class (although, as you know, there's always a lot of variation), e.g. h-dropping; greater use of glottal stops; /ð/ replaced by /d/ in initial position, as in 'this', 'the', etc.
    ...and I haven't mentioned any change in vowel qualities...

    2) By "liquids" I mean the phonemes /l/ and /r/.

    3) This is because you are looking at the spelling of 'little' and 'Britain'. If you think about how you pronounce them, you'll realise that it's not as you claim: one pronunciation of RP 'little' is [ˈlɪtl̩], and one pronunciation of RP 'Britain' is [ˈbrɪtn̩]. The consonant phonemes you can hear (and see) on the end of each word are called "syllabic consonants". These are consonants which can act as the nucleus of a syllable. In some sense, they are similar to vowels, which normally act as syllable nucleus.
    As you may have read from one of the links I provided in my post, some speakers of RP today increasingly replace syllabic consonants in words like 'little', 'garden' by the sequence /ə/+ oral consonant, thus sounding "childish" to many speakers.