But, buts, bus: The Scouse ‘T’

Map of LiverpoolScouse, the native accent of Liverpool, has comparatively unique features when compared to the surrounding area. Where Manchester and Leeds can arguably sound like variations of the same accent, Scouse seems to be in a world all its own.

One of the most unique Scouse features is the way the accent renders the letter ‘t.’ At the beginning of a word or a stressed syllable, /t/ is affricated, becoming something of a /ts/ sound: tree becomes ‘tsree,’ town becomes ‘tsown,’ and Tom becomes ‘tsom.’

But in between vowels and at the end of words, Liverpool /t/ is an exotic consonant popularly termed the ‘slit t.’ This might crudely be described as a sound between /t/ and /s/. Like /t/, it is pronounced with the tip of the tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge (the hard ridge right behind the top row of teeth). Like an /s/, however, the ‘slit t’ is a fricative, pronounced by passing air through the small opening created by the tongue’s position (hence the ‘slit’). To outsiders, then, the word butter might sound slightly like ‘busser.’

The ‘slit t’ is also found in Irish English, giving rise to a commonly-held assumption that Irish immigration to Liverpool led Scouse to adopt this ‘Irish sound.’ Given the city’s longstanding ties to the Emerald Isle, this seems a plausible theory.  Yet as I’ll explain later in the post, I have some reservations about the Liverpool-Ireland connection.

First though, a bit of background information.  The ‘slit t’ is part of a greater phenomenon called lenition, whereby stop consonants becomes ‘weaker’ or ‘softer.’ In Scouse, lenition not only affects /t/, but extends to /k/ (which can become the /x/ sound in Scottish loch) and /p/ (which can become the /ɸ/ sound heard in Japanese Fuji).

You can frequently hear the lenited /k/ in the speech of footballer and Liverpool local Steven Gerrard.  Notice the frequence of the ‘kh’ (i.e. /x/) sound in this interview:

Anyway, /p/ and /k/ lenition is not typically found in Irish English, perhaps weakening the argument that Scouse ‘slit t’ is a relative of Irish ‘slit t.’  [Ed. Note:  I expand upon this point in the comments below]. In Liverpool, lenition is common to several consonants, not just /t./

The rebuttal to this objection, put forth by linguist Raymond Hickey*, is that lenition in Scouse doesn’t necessarily come from Irish English, but rather the Irish Language itself. In particular, lenition of /k/,/t/,/d/ and /p/ bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the phenomenon of Irish consonant mutation.

This ‘mutation,’ contrary to what it sounds like, does not describe a consonant with extra eyes and green skin. Rather, it is a process whereby the first letter in an Irish word changes to a ‘softer’ consonant to serve some grammatical function. For example, the Irish word cos (meaning ‘leg’) might transform to chos depending on the grammatical context. This results in the /k/ sound changing to the ‘kh’ (i.e. /x/) sound (again, as in Scottish ‘loch‘).

Is Irish consonant mutation indeed the source of the Scouse /t/,/k/ and /p/? In his fascinating New dialect formation in nineteenth-century Liverpool: A Brief History of Scouse,** linguist Patrick Honeybone mentions two big objections to the connection between Scouse and Irish consonant mutation (both of which I find compelling):

1.) Irish consonant mutation occurs primarily at the beginning of words, rather than the middle or end of words (as in Scouse).

2.) If Irish consonant mutation is what led to lenition in Scouse, then why do we not see a similar pattern in actual Irish English accents?

But another thing puzzles me about the Irish-Scouse theory.  Many American cities, Boston being an excellent example, greeted similarly large masses of Irish immigrants in the 19th-Century.  Yet to my knowledge, no American accent adopted any type of Scouse-style lenition.  Not to mention that the nearby city of Manchester saw more than its share of Irish immigration, again with little indication of lenition being part of the local speech.

So why is Scouse so exceptional in this regard?

*Hickey, R. (1996). Lenition in Irish English. Belfast Working Papers in Linguistics
13: 173-193.

**Honeybone, P. (2007) ‘New-dialect formation in nineteenth century Liverpool: a brief history of Scouse.’ In Grant, A. & Grey, C. (eds) The Mersey Sound: Liverpool’s Language, People and Places. Liverpool: Open House Press, 106-140


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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10 Responses to But, buts, bus: The Scouse ‘T’

  1. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

    Regarding consonant mutation, it’s correct that from a gramatical point of view that it only occurs at beginning of a word. However mutated consonants can occur at other points in a word. However they always maintain the “mutated value”, s

    so for example: bh = w or v
    Dubh/ Duḃ
    Initially (grammatically)
    Bean -> an Bhean / an Ḃean (Woman -> The Woman)

    Likewise Loch (Loċ) as a sample is example of Séimhiú (Lentition in Irish) been in a non initial place. Here it serves a purely phonetic purpose and has no gramatical function like Séimhiú on initial consonant.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for pointing that out, Paul! In the name of comprehensibility, I’ve greatly understated Honeybone’s overall, which I’ll quote here:

      ‘…the patterning of these [Irish] mutations is very different to that now found in Liverpool. They are purely
      morphologically driven linguistic alternations which involve segmental alternations of
      ‘classical phonemes’ with surface contrasts, rather than the ‘allophones’ of Liverpool
      English. They affect only morpheme-initial segments, unlike the word medial and
      final effects which are more typically of Liverpool lenition, and they affect a large
      number of consonants, including glides and nasals − much more than just stops − and
      a large number of processes, including voicing and nasalisation − much more than just
      spirantisation (and they do not feature affrication).”

  2. Cclinton says:

    It sounds like the distinction between “s” and “slit t” is a apical/laminal distinction, with the “slit t” being the apical (pronounced with the tip of the tongue) and the “s” being laminal (pronounced with the “blade” of the tongue, the area right behind the tip). Same as the Basque “s” and “z”, with the only difference being the apical/laminal one.

    • trawicks says:

      You’re right about the apical/laminal distinction, but I still feel like the ‘slit t’ differs slightly from simply an apical /s/ sound. Then again, the fact that the slit t only seems to appear in the syllable coda might be leading me to misperceive a difference where there really isn’t one. Still reading up to see if I can find a more satisfying description!

  3. Brian says:

    I don’t agree that lenition only happens with /t/ in Hiberno English. I’ve heard it with /t/, /d/ and also /k/. I wouldn’t be surprised if it even happened with /p/ occasionally in at least some areas. But, then again, I don’t agree with a lot of the things Raymond Hickey says, if he’s the one who said that.

    Also in Scouse /t/ can be lenited further to [h] (debuccalization) as it can be in some accents of Hiberno English. You can hear this clearly in the video when Steven says “but” near the beginning. It seems to particularly common in that particular word in both Liverpool and Dublin.

    • trawicks says:

      I heard every accent of Irish English, but my own experience has suggested lenition primarily affects /t/. (BTW, I’m supported in that assumption by Honeybone, not Hickey, although everything I’ve read of Hickey’s only mentions alveolar stops).

      However, I’d like to amend what I said slightly: I think you’re likely to find some kind of lenition of stop consonants in many accents of English. For example, even in American English, I wouldn’t find /k/ being rendered as /x/ in the phrase “back of his head” particularly surprising, especially in rapid speech. In terms of Liverpool, I’d say its a matter of the sheer frequence of lenition that makes it such a studied feature.

      PS: I have to confess my own occasional ambivalence toward Hickey’s work, although that’s a topic for another day!

  4. Rhys says:

    I wouldn’t discount the possibility that certain features such as consonant mutation might come from the northern dialect of Welsh which was widely spoken in the city during the late 19th/early 20th century. There were over 100,000 fluent Welsh speakers in Liverpool at one point and the city is less than 20 miles from the Welsh border.

  5. Dylan says:

    Manchester and Leeds dialects most definitely do NOT sound like variations of the same dialect! There are some pretty big differences. Us Mancs always pronounce the ‘g’ in words like sing, thing, hang etc. In Leeds they do that weird thing where certain consonants are devoiced so you get ‘jicksaw’ for jigsaw. And all the vowels are a mess in Leeds, all their diphthongs have become monophthongised. So they’re pretty different!

  6. David says:

    I think it’s more likely that, since both Irish English and Welsh-accented English do strongly feature lenited /t/s , it became part of the Scouse accent.

    The /k/->/x/ might simply be a new sound change which fwas motivated due to an already existing lenition process of /t/? (Plus the proximity to Welsh and Irish speakers may have helped this, as both have /x/ as a phoneme). Also, some Irish speakers to also regularly lenite final /k/ (although perhaps not as strongly as Scouse).

  7. Stephen says:

    A very interesting discussion.I think the North Walian influence is definitely present in the dialect.The ‘ch’ consonant of the Welsh language as in Gaelic ‘loch’ is there albeit in a softer form.