English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Testing claims of a usage-based phonology with Liverpool English t-to-r1


a1 Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YL, UK l.clark6@lancaster.ac.uk

a2 School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand kevin.watson@canterbury.ac.nz


The variable phenomenon in which /t/ can be realized as a tap or rhotic approximant in varieties of Northern British English (commonly referred to as t-to-r, Wells 1982: 370) has received some attention in English linguistics as debates have appeared over how best to model its phonology (e.g. Carr 1991; Docherty et al. 1997; Broadbent 2008). The occurrence of t-to-r seems to be constrained by the preceding and following phonological environment in a largely systematic way and so it is often accounted for within a rule-based model of grammar. Problematically, however, the rule does not apply blindly across the board to all words which fit the specified phonological pattern. Instead, t-to-r shows evidence of being lexically restricted, and this fact has recently encouraged a usage-based interpretation. Until now, there has been relatively little attempt to test the usage-based thesis directly with fully quantified data gleaned from naturally occurring conversation. This article investigates the extent to which certain usage-based predictions can account for variation attested in t-to-r in Liverpool English. Using oral history interviews with Liverpool English speakers born in the early 1900s, we examine the usage-based predictions first proposed by Broadbent (2008) that t-to-r is more likely in (a) high-frequency words and (b) high-frequency phrases. There is some support for the importance of lexical frequency as a motivating factor in the use of t-to-r, but our data do not fully support either of these claims wholesale. We suggest that t-to-r is not constrained simply by word frequency or phrase frequency alone, but by a combination of both. Finally, we explore the possibility of employing notions from Cognitive Grammar such as schema strength (e.g. Taylor 2002; Bybee 1995: 430) in our interpretation of these data.

(Received November 15 2010)

(Revised March 30 2011)

(Online publication October 04 2011)


1 We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number RES-061-25-0458. We are also grateful to Paul Kerswill, Anastassia Loukina, Graeme Trousdale and Eivind Torgersen for their comments on an earlier draft of this article and we would like to thank the audience at the workshop for La Phonologie de l'Anglais Contemporain (PAC): usages, variétés et structure, where parts of this research were presented.