Sound and vision blog

27 March 2014

Bristol L - what a wonderfa ideal

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Bristol, Knowle West, Dulverton, Ilminster and Wellington. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Bristol and BBC Somerset Sound. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Knowle West and Dulverton, also include detailed descriptions of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

A unique feature of Bristol dialect is 'parasitic L' (or 'Bristol L' as it's often called in popular descriptions). This refers to the process whereby a word that in most accents ends in a weak vowel - e.g. area, idea and cinema - is pronounced in Bristol dialect with a word final <l> - i.e. to sound like 'areal', 'ideal' and 'cinemal'. This feature is often caricatured in stereotypical portrayals of Bristolian speech, but it's likely very few people have heard an authentic example. You can hear several spontaneous examples in the conversation in Knowle West here, including:

0:41:11 I can remember the first time I had a bananal [= 'banana']

0:41:45 I know at one time he came home ... and our ma was stood at the living room windle [= 'window']

The second example above is particularly striking as it reveals a two-step phonological rule: firstly the final syllable of window is interpreted as containing an underlying weak vowel - i.e. 'winda'. This is a pretty widespread phenomenon in speech across the UK (and elsewhere) as confirmed by common pronunciations like 'fella' [= fellow], 'borra' [= borrow] and 'marra' [= marrow, friend]. There's a platform announcer at Kings Cross underground station in London, for instance, who on a daily basis alerts passengers to Metropolitan Line trains stopping all stations to 'arra' [= Harrow-on-the-Hill]. In Bristol this process creates an environment where parasitic L can occur - hence window > winda > windle. You might think, therefore, that pairs like idea and ideal or area and aerial are indistinguishable in Bristol dialect, but in fact speakers who use Bristol L invariably convert word final <l> to a weak vowel so that aerial is pronounced 'area' thus maintaining the distinction. Again you can hear evidence of this in the conversation in Knowle West such as: 

0:03:26 I lived at where the old origina Whitfield tabernaca was

Indeed the name Bristol itself (historically Bristow but re-interpreted locally and subsequently nationally as Bristol) is a tribute to this wonderfa loca feature that in my humba opinion makes Brista my ideal of an idea dialect areal.


I can't hear this as a phonemic /l/ at all. It just sounds like a variant of a weak vowel with vague sense of /l/ about it. There are quite a few tokens of "banana" from that same speaker - and if this is a typical authentic example of Bristol-L, then it confirms my feeling that it's largely a caricature by outsiders and that there aren't really neutralisations (Eva/Evil) in normal speech.

I thought likewise until I heard recordings in our archive. It's certainly elusive and arguably more likely to crop up in 'cod' Bristol dialect but there are genuine examples here and in other recordings at the BL. Try e.g.[0:13:02] 'she brought up a bag of newspapers and put hine there set fire to it all and people started coming out with their stuff […] all the Yanks come up somebody got their piano [pianəɫ] out their living room and we had a party in the road and it was absolutely fantastic, it was'; or 0:13:31 'they’re the first ones to hang the flags out, you know, and when Diana [daɪanəɫ] and Prince Charles got married uh everybody went to town, didn’t they, parties celebrations everything'. Both (and others here) are clearly lateral consonants.

Sorry Jim but there are those of us who have visited Bristol and heard the L being added to words. There was also a TV piece many years ago where Bristolians were asked to read a sentence along the lines of "Dora Vega the prima donna of the Carl Rosa" and many of them said "Doral Vegal the primal donnal of the Carl Rosal" That's where I saw it for the first time and actually heard it in Bristol later.

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