Coda Approximants in British English: A diachronic and synchronic account

Gjertrud Flermoen Stenbrenden, ILOS

Present-Day English (PDE) has four approximants, two semi-vowels (/j/ and /w/) and two liquids (/r/ and /l/). Approximants are phonetically vowel-like with little obstruction to the airstream, but phonologically consonant-like, forming syllabic onsets and codas.


Phonotactically, the semi-vowels are restricted to onsets, which restriction goes back to early Middle English. In most varieties of English in England, the /r/ is restricted to onsets too, after the eighteenth-century process called R-Dropping (Wells 1982). The same process is affecting coda /l/ in many varieties of PDE (L-Vocalisation, Wells 1982). Thus, there seems to be a long-term ‘conspiracy’ in British English (BrE) to bar approximants from codas.


The history of the approximants shows other striking similarities, including their tendency to lengthen preceding vowels, and to vocalise and combine with preceding vowels to form diphthongs. Evidence from earlier English suggests that such phonetic processes have affected English approximants since their earliest history (Jones 1989).


This presentation seeks to outline briefly the historical developments of English approximants; to identify common characteristics; to assess articulatory-acoustic findings from modern processes affecting approximants, and evaluate how these may elucidate historical processes; and to determine which model(s) provide(s) the best account of these changes. Historical evidence is culled from LAEME (A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English)[1] and eLALME (the electronic version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English),[2] as well as from DOEC (The Dictionary of Old English Corpus).[3]


I propose that a model combining both articulatory-gestural and acoustic features is best able to describe what happens to coda approximants (e.g. Ohala and Lorentz 1977; Sproat and Fujimura 1993; Stuart-Smith 2007), and that a model which additionally accommodates syllable structure and re-analysis (e.g. Jones 1989; Borowsky and Horvath 1997) may go a long way towards explaining the peculiar long-term behaviour of BrE approximants.



Borowsky, T. and B. Horvath. 1997. “L-vocalization in Australian English”. In Variation, change and phonological theory, edited by F. Hinskens et al., 101-123. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jones, C. 1989. A History of English Phonology. London: Longman.

Ohala, J.J. and J. Lorentz. 1977. “The story of [w]: an exercise in the phonetic explanation for sound patterns”. Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: 577-599.

Sproat, R. and O. Fujimura. 1993. “Allophonic variation in English /l/ and its implications for pho-netic implementations”. Journal of Phonetics 21: 291-311.

Stuart-Smith, J. 2007. “A sociophonetic investigation of postvocalic /r/ in Glaswegian adolescents”. The Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences: 1449-1452.

Wells, J.H. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: CUP.

Emneord: English linguistics, phonology, approximants, historical development
Publisert 8. apr. 2019 14:13 - Sist endret 8. apr. 2019 14:13