chapter  3
17 Pages

Phonological innovation in contemporary spoken British English

ByGerard J. Docherty

Misunderstandings as the result of an erroneous interpretation of the phonetic characteristics of an utterance are commonly discussed in the context of second-language learners (e.g. Best and Tyler 2007), but, arguably, less so where they arise as a result of variation within the native language (Labov 1994; Bond 1999). So, for example, the present author (a native speaker of English who has lived his entire life in either England or Scotland) recently stopped in his tracks when ‘Cheese Day’ was the mistaken interpretation which he made of a UK undergraduate student’s realization of the word ‘Tuesday’ (in this case, the immediate context did not provide the necessary disambiguation until about ten seconds after the misinterpretation had been made). The principal cause of this ‘slip of the ear’ was the sheer auditory distance between the front and unrounded vowel quality produced by the speaker in the first syllable of that utterance (as is now regularly the case for speakers of his age – see below) and the author’s phonological representation of the same vowel in the target word, such that, in this particular instance, the target vowel /u/ was perceptually assimilated to /i/. The misperception, of course, was enhanced by the realization of the initial /tj/ consonantal sequence as a palato-alveolar affricate [ʧ] identical to that found at the onset of cheese. And this instance was a striking reminder that even for native speakers of widely spoken varieties of English, ongoing phonological change can lead to significant issues regarding intelligibility, even in the case where the listener is attuned to and has regularly encountered this type of realizational variant in English and is familiar with its association with a relatively younger generation of speakers. If phonological innovations can lead to misinterpretations such as this for (even rea-

sonably well-informed) speakers of varieties of English which are in social/geographical proximity, then it is arguably all the more likely that they will be a more significant challenge for speakers of other varieties of English either as an L1 or L2 who have not had exposure to the innovative phonetic realizations of the variety concerned. With this in mind, the aim of this chapter is to paint in broad strokes some of the key dimensions of innovation and change in patterns of pronunciation of British

English. By necessity the coverage is selective and the chapter does not provide indepth accounts of the various features discussed. In presenting this overview, I do not focus on one particular variety, nor do I attempt to provide coverage of all of the interesting variability observable within UK varieties of English. Rather, the material is designed to draw readers’ attention to a selection of features which are distinctive, and in many cases relatively recent innovations present across speakers of a number of UK varieties, and particularly so in the speech of the younger generations. For further details of many of the features described below, readers are referred to the

recent volumes by Britain (2007) and Kortmann and Schneider (2004), to the somewhat less recent collection by Foulkes and Docherty (1999), and to the descriptions provided by Hughes et al. (2005 – especially the overview presented in Chapter 4), as well as to a range of individual studies which are specified below. Readers are also referred to the excellent online resources providing stream-able samples of a wide range of contemporary UK English accents, perhaps the most notable of which are the BBC Voices project ( and the British Library ‘Sounds Familiar’ archive (