Friday, October 16, 2009

A "Likkle" Sound Change in Jamaican Creole English

This semester I decided to include a "reggae segment" to my undergraduate historical linguistics course, where we look at interesting linguistic changes in both Jamaican Creole and in "Dread Talk" (Rastafarian English), as exemplified by audio clips from various reggae songs. So, in addition to going over the traditional examples of sound change like Grimm's Law and Verner's Law, we also looked at sound change in Jamaican Creole. After discussing Verner's Law as a conditioned sound change, I introduced the phonologically-conditioned "likkle law" of Jamaican Creole English: the sound change /t/ > /k/ which occurs in certain words, such as likkle (< little):
“...Well, me said ‘no, no, don’t be like dat’, me likkle heart a pitter-pat...”
My initial characterisation of the conditions on this change was that /t/ became /k/ intervocalically. My guess was that Jamaican Creole English had been based on a vernacular British dialect in which intervocalic /t/ was realised as a glottal stop (/ʔ/); and that glottal /ʔ/ had been approximated in Jamaican Creole by velar /k/. Thus vernacular British English /liʔḷ/ had been approximated in Jamaican Creole by /likḷ/.

However my students--though the class is smaller than usual, they're a bright batch of students--quickly pointed out that pitter didn't undergo the change, and that therefore the conditioning environment appeared to be more restricted.

I went back and checked Cassidy [1]:40 and found that in fact the conditioning environment does indeed seem to be restricted to instances in which /t/ immediately precedes /ḷ/ or /l/. Examples include /sekḷ/ (settle), /brikḷ/ (brittle), /wakḷ/ (wattle), and /wiklo/ (whitlow) [there is also an apparent example of /t/ > /k/ word-finally, in buck for butt (as in what goats do, not the body-part), but maybe this simply reflects semantic change of buck rather than sound change]. But this now looks like a rather unusual sound change. Why should dental/alveolar /t/ become velar /k/? And why particularly before /ḷ/ or /l/?

Even more perplexing is the fact that Cassidy [1]:40 also states that /d/ becomes /g/ in the same environment: /figḷ/ (fiddle), /rigḷ/ (riddle), /ni:gḷ/ (needle), /kyaŋgḷ/ (candle), /haŋgḷ/ (handle), /dwiŋgḷ/ (dwindle) etc. Now the parallelism of voiced dental stop /d/ becoming voiced velar stop /g/ just as voiceless dental stop /t/ becomes voiceless velar stop /k/ is clear, but the reason for these two changes still seemed rather mysterious.

I think I now might have the beginnings of an explanation. Hallé & Best[2] discuss the fact that French listeners tend to perceive illegal /tl/ and /dl/ clusters as /kl/ and /gl/, respectively, suggesting that /dl/, /tl/ undergo “phonotactic perceptual assimilation” to the phonetically most similar permissible clusters. Could this be what happened in Jamaican Creole?

[Update: My advisor Hans Henrich Hock informs me of some parallel changes in other languages involving /tl/ > /kl/, including:

PIE *pōtlom > Pre-Latin *pōklom > Latin pōculum "cup"

And notes other instances of change which serve to avoid /tl/ clusters, including re-syllabification in Spanish, e.g. atlas "atlas" is syllabified as /at.las/, though coplas "verses" is syllabified as /ko.plas/. See Hock [3]:137.

He also points out Sanskrit examples of avoidance of /dl/ clusters, e.g.:

kṣulla < *kṣudla (= l-variant of Skt. kṣudra "small")
bhalla < *bhadla (= l-variant of Skt. bhadra "auspicious, good") ]

[1]Cassidy, Frederic G. 1971. Jamaica Talk: Three hundred years of the English language in Jamaica. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2nd edn.
[2]Hallé, Pierre A. & Catherine T. Best. 2007. Dental-to-velar perceptual assimilation: A cross-linguistic study of the perception of dental stop+/l/ clusters. Journal of the Acoustic Society of America 121/5: 2889-2914. [draft version here]
[3]Hock, Hans Henrich. 1991. Principles of historical linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2nd edn.


  1. There's also the more modern example, tlhIngan Hol [t͡ɬɪŋɑn] > English Klingon.

  2. Nice.

    I suppose the typical English pronunciation of the Amerindian language Tlingit would be another example.

  3. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the word ickle, popular British slang/babytalk for "little" ("look at the ickle kittycat!"). I'm not British so I've only encountered it on the Web, but Urban Dictionary has references dating from 2004.

  4. In the clusters /dl/ and /tl/, both elements require alveolar closure. If I am speaking slowly and clearly, I will articulate each element separately. This requires me to

    1. Create an alveolar closure
    2. Release the alveolar closure for the /t/ or /d/
    3. Recreate the alveolar closure for the /l/

    In informal or rapid speech, it's much quicker to release the /t/ or /d/ laterally. This means that there is no need for steps 2 and 3 above, and one alveolar closure can do double duty for both elements in the cluster.

    When I perform this lateral release, it seems to take place at a palatal or velar backness in my mouth. So it's not surprising that some might hear this as a velar articulation such as a /k/ or /g/.

    There's a bit more about this at

  5. In parts of the Mid-Atlantic American dialect region, intervocalic /t/ is realized as a glottal stop not only in words with intervocalic t followed by /l/, but also in words without the /l/, like kitten /kiʔen/ and mitten /miʔen/; but, according to my wife, who is Jamaican, the intervocalic /t/ isn't rendered as /k/ in Jamaican English unless it is followed by an l.
    Supports your hypothesis, I think.

  6. @ASG: Thanks for the additional "motherese" example of this phenomenon.

    @vp: Thanks for the additional phonetic info.

    @Michael: Thanks. Your wife's data seem to confirm that this is still a "live" process in Jamaican English.

  7. What about the transformation of "peanut brittle" into "peanut brickle"?

  8. In Swedish, the common word "egentligen" ('in fact') is often heard reduced from [e"jentligen] to ["jeNklIn], with an assimilated nasal and everything.

    Following the reggae theme, here's a short lesson by the artist Charlie Chaplin [sic!] where he wants to teach us "how di yankee dem talk":

  9. The /t/ > /k/ for sure ain't Jamaican specific,
    as mentioned, the British "Ickle", also, compare with the Tok-Pisin 'liklik' (little)
    I have also observed the phenomenon in Scandinavian (no examples off the top of my head)
    This all suggests this is not an 'islander's innovation, but rather some Germanic sound-drift.
    Relating it to the /tt/ -> glottal stop makes alot of sense. also note that 'little' - is only a diminutive of 'lyt'