The colour of liquid: a sociophonetic analysis of the changing positional allophony of the South African English lateral approximant

  • Ian Bekker School of Languages, North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus
  • Alida Chevalier
Keywords: South African English, English phonetics, English accents, sociophonetics, acoustic analysis, liquids, alveolar lateral, sound change


This article provides a sociophonetic analysis of General South African English /l/, based on the naturalistic speech of 50 male and female L1-speakers of this variety of South African English (SAfE), all from Cape Town and ranging from 18-82 years of age. Emphasis falls on testing descriptions provided by the impressionistic literature of the so-called ‘colour’ of the two main allophones of this phoneme i.e. those in initial and final positions; and on determining whether there has been any change in this regard. The relevant phonetic (acoustic) analysis focuses on the parameters of F2 or F2-F1 (as general measures of ‘colour’) and co-articulatory resistance (as an additional parameter of darkening, particularly with respect to final-/l/) to determine the overall status of /l/ as well as to determine whether or not the acoustic difference between initial-/l/ and final-/l/ meets the criteria provided by Recasens (2012) for extrinsic allophony. These parameters also constitute dependent variables for a statistical analysis which determines the relative effect of one internal (positional allophony) and two external (age and gender) independent variables on these parameters. The results provide evidence to suggest that pronouncements in the impressionistic literature are incorrect. While there has been a darkening of /l/-colour in apparent time, /l/-colour in General SAfE has been and is consistently of a relatively dark kind, as in the case of the Australasian varieties of English, the closest relatives of SAfE. Furthermore, results show that any remaining difference in colour between the two positional allophones is purely the result of intrinsic allophony i.e. General SAfE does not display a full RP-like clear-dark allophony. Results do, however, confirm that female speakers have a slightly more fronted variant of initial-/l/, probably a prestige variant.