Armitage unflappable

Since we’re talking about the voice here, go check out Frenzy’s latest voice on The Voice.

Since nothing analytical that I felt like writing today is short, I give you another clip segment. This time, it’s Mr. Armitage saying the word “little,” another one of those words that I find particularly happy-making when I hear him say it. I have three examples here; I am sure we could find more to use for comparative purposes. Nothing here is particularly Armitageneous — that is, what fascinates me is a characteristic of speech shared by speakers of RP (which, incidentally, wikipedia says is the same thing as Queen’s English), though he does it particularly well.

In all three instances, some more noticeably than others, Mr. Armitage uses the standard English IPA transcription of the word to pronounce it: ˈlɪtəl. (Interestingly, this is also the pronunciation every American dictionary I looked at gave, although no one I know says it that way). To wit:

The linguistic concept here is the pronunciation of the double consonant “t,” or “geminate.” In English, gemination within root words is almost always unnoticeable or at best marginal (no native speaker of English says “lit-tle” — in contrast to Italian, for example, where both t’s in a double consonant would be pronounced). All native speakers pronounce one consonant despite the double “t.” The question is what the consonant will be, or how it will be pronounced. RP speakers pronounce the “t” consonant in “little,” whereas American and Australian speakers tend to engage in something called intervocalic alveolar flapping (a type of consonantal softening, or lenition), i.e., they tend to substitute something that sounds like a “d” for the “t” in this situation (it’s not actually a d — which is pronounced on the teeth as well, with a different tongue position). When I say the word “little,” I say ˈlɪɾəl”. The “ɾ” is the sign for the flap or tap — Mr. Armitage touches his tongue to the bottom of his front incisors, whereas I tap or flap my tongue onto the alveolar ridge — the ridge of my mouth just inside my incisors. (The tap also appears in some British English; for instance, as the “r” in “very”.) In some British dialects, the “t” is neither pronounced nor flapped, but instead replaced with a swallowing of the consonant or glottal stop (“li ‘el” — something that I’d think of if I saw it on tv as a “lower class” British accent).

Another “thing to watch” in the world “little” relates to the closing phoneme “l.” Many British speakers of  English velarize the “l” at the end of a word, so that it sounds more like a “w.” Armitage rarely velarizes a closing “l,” even when he’s speaking in interviews, i.e., presumably not concentrating on pronunciation as an aspect of characterization. (For example, BBC Leicester interview here; you can hear him pronounce the final phoneme “l” clearly in words like “all” or “will.” For another example of this beautiful word, he says “little” again at c. 3:33.) The only exception I can think of is when he’s trying to sound “matey,” as in Spooks 8.5, where he velarizes the final consonant in the word “call.” If you need an incentive to watch this clip, it’s also the “glove p–n” sequence from the same episode.

The velarization of “l” seems, however, to be more broadly shared about Brits. I’ve noticed that the two British ex-pats who have offices next to mine (my friend and colleague the former Cambridge professor, and another professor) both velarize their closing “l” as a matter of course. At least in the case of my friend and colleague the former Cambridge professor, the velarization is much more intense after he’s spent a month at home, and disappears gradually as the term wears on, only to reappear again after vacations.

Really, I just wanted to say I liked the way Mr. Armitage pronounces the word “little.”

~ by Servetus on March 28, 2011.

23 Responses to “Armitage unflappable”

  1. Now, of course, I am sitting here doing various things with my tongue as I say “little.” The long, strange trip that has been my journey into all things Armitage . . . 😉 I had no idea I had been practicing intervocalic aveolar flapping on a regular basis. Mercy me!

    You know I love everything about accents and pronunciations. 😀

    And always looking for a reason to listen to Mr. A–and watch a little glove porn. Oh–yeah. LOL


    • We American women are all intervocalic alveolar flappers 🙂


      • @servetus,
        I’m practicing saying “inervocalic alveolar flapper” in my sexy voice. It sounds pretty hot! 😉


        Just another sign Mr. A knows the importance of the “little” things in life. 😀


  2. As an English person I have picked up on his pronunciation of ‘little’ myself. He just seems to take his time nicely with that word, which gives it an importance in a sentence that you don’t usually get.


  3. Absolutely fascinating! 🙂


  4. I think Mr A’s clear pronounciation of words owes much to his speech training as Pattison’s. You don’t get good marks for Grade 5 Speech (and probably higher grades as well) by saying ‘littlw’. I think pronouciation of ‘little’ as with many words is related to both social background and regional accent. I would identify ‘littlw’ as being more of a London lower class pronounciation. Interestingly, my work colleague spent most of her childhood and teens in Dorchester, Dorset but the only distinctive pronouciation that she still has that I can identify is the word ‘little’. When she is presenting in school assemblies (the work I assist her with) her pronouciation of that particular word tends to be perhaps more ‘American’ as she seems to engage the intervocalic alveolar flapping you mention. English pronounciation is fascinating!


    • I was trying to find out what’s involved in the Grade 5 speech exam but found the system rather confusing.


  5. Thank you prof. Servetus. I love reading your blog, because I always learn something new. Frankly I dont have much opportunity to use the “live” English. Therefore, it willingly and with a delight I listen to every word uttered by Mr. Armitage (he does it so perfectly)


  6. […] this theme, regarding how much I love the way Mr. Armitage says the word “little,” go here. Re-reading that, I want to mention that I did find an example of him using the glottal stop for […]


  7. […] reference to “journey” theme of Shirley Henderson’s and his characters; apparent velarization of “l” in Auslaut as normal speech pattern, which he does rarely after 2006; giggly reference to Starburst […]


  8. […] Channel interview? He was swallowing his “t.” This tendency (and its opposite, the refusal to commit the American alveolar flap) is something I’ve been tremendously interested in before. The refusal to do an alveolar flap […]


  9. Mmm, like his pronunciation of “battle,” which I have noted on more than one occasion. He really takes his time with the word, and it is delicious.


  10. […] very nice copy. Mr. Armitage is definitely unflappable again. All fans of the word "battle" will definitely be repaid for their download […]


  11. I don’t have an ear for the subtle differences between flappable and unflappable. Perhaps they are not subtle at all, but to me (too much loud music?) I have to listen to the examples many times to hear a difference. My question is: When we finally hear Richard with his American accent throughout an entire movie, will British or American fans find his voice less pleasing, velvety or sexy? Or more? As an American, I always find British accents more beautiful than American ones. Is that true if you are not an American? Just wondering.


    • I think the quality of pleasing has to do with the pitch and timbre of the voice, although I admit that there are both British and American accents that I find more and less pleasing.


  12. […] Dolarhyde, apparently unconscious of his illness — truly creepy. Although, there’s that missing alveolar flap there. No Missourian would say “little” like that, I fear. His right eye takes on an […]


  13. […] occasional breathlessness suits the quick shifting of images. His enjoyment of consonants — no alveolar flapper he — also suits the historicizing, fairy-tale telling style. For me there’s always been a […]


  14. […] we’re thinking about New York, a thing to notice: Armitage does manage to tone down his aggressive alveolar flap (latter, written), a very recognizable feature of his speech. However, he says these things like I […]


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