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    Lenition in Irish English

Lenition in Irish English
The lenition cline

The term ‘lenition’ refers to phonetic weakening, that is an increase in sonority with a given segment. In terms of the following hierarchy, lenition leads to a movement upwards on the scale. If there is no vertical movement, then at least there is a movement in point of articulation, above all from the oral to the glottal area.

Lenition normally consists of several steps and diachronically a language may exhibit a shift from stop to zero via a number of intermediary stages. Attested cases of lenition are represented by the Germanic sound shift (stop to fricative), West Romance consonantal developments (Martinet 1952) such as lenition in Spanish or more dialectal phenomena such as the gorgia toscana in Tuscan Italian (Rohlfs 1949; Ternes 1977) or lenition in Canary Spanish (Oftedal 1986).

If one looks at English in this light one can recognise that the alveolar point of articulation represents a favoured site for phonetic lenition (Hickey 1996, 2009). Alveolars in English can involve different types of alternation (Kallen 2005), three of which are summarised below, the labels on the left indicating sets of varieties in which these realisations are frequently found.

Variety or group Lenited form of stop Example
American English Tap water [wɑ:ſɚ]
Urban British English Glottal stop water [wɑ:ʔə]
Southern Irish English Fricative water [wɑ:ṱɚ]

Lenition in Irish English

1) Glottalisation of /t/ Glottalisation involves the removal of the oral gesture from a segment. The realisation of /t/ as a glottal stop [ʔ] is a long recognised feature of popular London speech but it is also found widely in other parts of Britain (including Scotland) as a realisation of intervocalic and/or word-final /t/. This does not hold for supraregional varieties of Irish English, especially in the south. The south has a fricative [ṱ] in these positions while the north frequently has a flap, cf. butter [bʌṱɚ] versus [bʌſɚ]. As a manifestation of lenition, glottalisation occurs in vernacular Dublin English, e.g. butter [bʊʔɐ], right [rəɪʔ]. This fact may explain its absence in non-vernacular Dublin English, despite the change in this variety in recent years. Glottalisation does not occur in southern rural forms of English either. Nor is it found in Irish so that transfer from the substrate, either historically or in the remaining Irish-speaking areas, does not represent a source.

  ‘The Whole Floor is Wet’ with glottalisation of final /-t/ [-ʔ] (local Dublin speaker)

2) Tapping of /t/ Tapping can also be classified as lenition as it is a reduction in the duration of a segment. Tapping can only occur with alveolars (labials and velars are excluded). Furthermore, it is only found in word-internal position and only in immediately post-stress environments. As tapping is phonetically an uncontrolled articulation, it cannot occur word-finally (except in sandhi situations, e.g. at^all) and cannot initiate a stressed syllable. For some younger non-local speakers in Ireland, it is fashionable to use tapping as an alternative to frication, e.g. better ['beſɚ] (Hickey 2005: 77f.).

  WATER with intervocalic flap (non-local Dublin speaker)

3) Frication of /t/ Of the three main options for the lenition of /t/ across varieties of English, frication is the most straightforward in terms of increasing sonority. The alveolar stop shifts to an alveolar fricative with no change in place of articulation or secondary articulation. The details of this shift will be considered below but before this it is necessary to understand the context in which this shift takes place, i.e. the set of coronal segments in Irish English.

  BIT BET BAT BUT (non-local Dublin speaker)

4) /t/ to [h] Especially in word-internal position local speakers can show the realisation of /t/ as [h], rather than using a glottal stop. The use of these two sounds would appear to be in free variation, at least there is no sociolinguistic distinction between these sounds though there is, of course, between both of them and the apico-fricative [ṱ] which is typical of non-vernacular speech throughout Ireland.

  LETTER with medial [h] (local Dublin speaker)

5) T-to-R An occasional feature of local Dublin English whereby and intervocalic /t/ can be shifted to [r] as part of lenition. Normally, local speakers have T-glottalisation, T-tapping or T-deletion intervocalically. However, after a stressed vowel and before a further closed syllable [r] can be found as in get up! [gɛrʊp].

The lenition cline

T-lenition is a universal feature of southern Irish English. The fricative t [ṱ] occurs (i) intervocalically, as in city [sɪṱi], and (ii) word-finally and before a pause as in sit [sɪṱ]. This apico-alveolar fricative can be further weakened along a cline which, in local Dublin English, can lead to the deletion of /t/ entirely.

The following tables offer more detailed information about (i) syllable position and lenition in Irish English and (ii) the lenition alternatives which exist.


Hickey, Raymond 1996. ‘Lenition in Irish English’, in: Alison Henry, Martin Ball and Margaret MacAliskey (eds) 1996. Papers from the International Conference on Language in Ireland. Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics. Belfast: University of Ulster, pp. 173-193.

Hickey, Raymond 2009. ‘Weak segments in Irish English’. in: Donka Minkova (ed.) Phonological Weakness in English. From Old to Present-day English. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 116-129.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 2005. ‘Internal and external factors in phonological convergence: the case of English /t/ lenition’, in: Peter Auer, Frans Hinskens and Paul E. Kerswill (eds) 2005. Dialect Change: Convergence and Divergence in European Languages. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 51-80.

Martinet, André 1952. ‘Celtic lenition and Western Romance consonants’, Language 28: 192-217.

Oftedal, Magne 1986. Lenition in Celtic and in Insular Spanish. The Secondary Voicing of Stops in Gran Canaria. Oslo: University Press.

Rohlfs, Gerhard 1949. Historische Grammatik der italienischen Sprache und ihrer Mundarten. [An historical grammar of the Italian language and its dialects] 3 Vols. Bern: Francke.

Ternes, Elmar 1977. ‘Konsonantische Anlautveränderungen in den keltischen und romanischen Sprachen’ [Consonantal initial mutation in the Celtic and Romance languages], Romanistisches Jahrbuch 28: 19-53.