Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Yittle Sister

Posted by Neal on April 21, 2005

Today I took Doug and Adam over to Doug’s friend’s house to play. Doug’s friend had a little sister about Adam’s age. She was a little shy at first, but once she got into playing with the others and started talking, I had a moment of déjà vu. When she wanted to show her dad what she’d made, she said, “Yook!” When she approved of something, she said she yiked it. That brought back memories–memories of Doug and his L’s up until just about a year ago, which faithful readers may recall. (So I guess this would be more of a déjà entendu.)

Every now and then Little Sister would say a perfectly articulated [l], but more often it was a [y]. I wondered if Little Sister shared the rest of Doug’s intriguing /l/ phonology. Like her, Doug had pronounced word-initial /l/ as [y]. But in a consonant cluster, Doug’s /l/ came out as [w]. If only I could find some way to elicit one of those from Little Sister… Aha! I picked up a Clifford doll, and asked, “Hey, Little Sister, who’s this?”

“Cwifford,” she said. Sure enough!

But now for the kicker: Did Little Sister have the same confounding exception to the rule that Doug had had? To wit, in an /sl/ cluster, did the /l/ come out as a [w], as with other clusters, or did it come out as a [y]?

I asked, “Hey, Little Sister, uh, what do you do in your bed at night?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, I’m just curious. Do you exercise? No? Do you eat ice cream?”

“No, I sweep!” she told me.

So Little Sister’s rule for /l/ in a cluster didn’t have the troublesome exception that Doug’s did. Nice. Doug would have said “syeep.”

At this point, I figured I’d better tell her dad what the heck I was doing. (Come to think of it, it was probably a good thing he was in the room with us when I started asking her what she did in bed. Imagine her sitting at the supper table and telling her mom and dad, “Doug’s dad is weird. He asked me what I did in bed.” Yikes!) Anyway, he was pretty cool about my impromptu research, and when I mentioned that Doug’s /l/ between vowels had come out as [w], he even called Little Sister over, pointed to a picture of Delilah in a kid’s Bible story book and asked her who she was.

“Deyilah,” she said. Oops. Now I remembered the subtler version of Doug’s rule: His /l/ had come out as [y] at the beginning of any stressed syllable (thus, Yaa-Yaa for Laa-Laa the Teletubby), not just the beginning of a word. You needed a word like lollipop (“yawipop”) in order to get that [w] between vowels. Little Sister’s dad was amazingly accommodating! When I told him this latest refinement of the rule, he asked her to say lollipop. She’d had enough, though, and was back to playing with the boys. Oh, well.

2 Responses to “Yittle Sister”

  1. Kelly said

    my sister had the same problem when she was the same age.

    When I was 13, and as my mother and grandmother put it “became a young lady”, she would say “ylung yady”.

    She did it for a while, although my brother never did it, nor did I according to my mother.

  2. […] was) consistent with the strong-vs.-weak rule, even for /sl/ clusters? Doug’s friend’s little sister, who pronounced sleep as […]

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