l

The phoneme /l/ is pronounced in two different ways in English, depending on the sound that follows it. Many people -even native speakers- are surprised to learn that there is a sound called “clear l” (that used in late or elect) and another which is known as “dark l” (the one used in bull or film). A failure to make the difference between the two won’t cause any misunderstanding, but a good use of clear and dark l  will allow you to sound more natural and it will help you understand native speakers more easily (not least because the dark l  can get very, very dark sometimes).

Let’s start by listening to the difference between clear and dark l.

Clear                          Dark

sound_loud_speaker light                       sound_loud_speaker full

sound_loud_speaker allow                     sound_loud_speaker milk

sound_loud_speaker bullet                    sound_loud_speaker bull

sound_loud_speaker illusion                 sound_loud_speaker illness


l (alveolar, lateral, voiced)

Spelling: l (late, old, elegant), ll (full, allow)

The phoneme /l/ is pronounced in two different ways depending on the sound that follows it. When it is followed by a vowel it is called “clear l” and it sounds like a normal Spanish l. So the /l/ used in land and elegant is exactly the same as that in largo  and elegante.

sound_loud_speaker land                      sound_loud_speaker largo

sound_loud_speaker elegant               sound_loud_speaker elegante

But there is another type of l  in English, the dark l, which occurs when this phoneme is followed by a consonant or a pause. In this case, the l  is velarized, which means that the back part of your tongue raises towards the velar region (the back part of the roof of your mouth). So there are two processes going on: you are saying a clear l and, at the same time, your tongue raises as if you wanted to say an /ʊ/.

It might sound complicated, but, believe me, it is not. Let’s try.

First say a normal, clear, Spanish /l/ and, at some point, try to say an /ʊ/. You’ll see that the /l/ becomes different, dark, that is, velarized.

From clear l  to dark l  sound_loud_speaker

There is a specific symbol in phonetics for the dark l, which is this: [ɫ]. So the word help  is transcribed more accurately as [heɫp] than as  [help]. However, the symbol [ɫ] is not usually provided in dictionary transcriptions. This is because [ɫ] is not a phoneme but an allophone, so I won’t normally use it in this website, just on a few occasions for didactic purposes.

Now you can say the following words with a more natural accent:

sound_loud_speaker help [heɫp]       sound_loud_speaker fall  [fɔːɫ]    sound_loud_speaker elbow [ˈeɫbəʊ]     sound_loud_speaker old [əʊɫd]     sound_loud_speaker ultimate  [ˈʌɫtɪmət]    sound_loud_speaker alphabet [ˈæɫfəbet]

 

Now, listen to some native speakers saying the /l/. Notice how plainly the difference between clear and dark l  can be appreciated in the first example.

sound_loud_speaker First on the West End stage and later in film (Kirsty Lang, BBC4). ǀ ˈleɪtər ɪn ˈfɪɫm ǀ

And here you have the word feel repeated twice. Again, the velarization of the l  is quite distinct.

sound_loud_speaker Do you feel more in control? Do you feel that you are better actresses now? (John Wilson, BBC4)

 

More about the /l/.

Let’s now touch on some further points worth knowing about the l.

1. When the l is doubled (as in allow or fall) the sound doesn’t change. And, of course, a double l never sounds as the consonant used in Spanish to say words like llama or lluvia.

Listen to this example:

sound_loud_speaker below        sound_loud_speaker bellow 

The pronunciation is different and also the meaning of the word (1. at a lower position. 2. To shout angrily). However, the /l/ sound is always the same.

2. Affixes can change the type of l, as in this example:

sound_loud_speaker tell  (dark)      sound_loud_speaker telling  (clear)

3. In some accents -the London area, for example- the darkness of the l  is so pronounced that it turns into a sound resembling the /w/. So, help becomes [hewp] sound_loud_speaker and still  is pronounced [stɪw] sound_loud_speaker.

4. In American English the l  tends to be always dark, even before vowels. So, given the extension of this variety of English, you’re likely to hear it quite often.

Here is a very interesting example where you can hear an American speaker (journalist Rick Kleffel) saying the word language with a dark l  and a British speaker (writer Julian Barnes) using the same word pronounced with a clear l.

sound_loud_speaker “Could you tell us a little bit about how you put together the language of this novel?” (Rick Kleffel, KUSP)  “(…) I think the language varies from story to story”. (Julian Barnes, KUSP)

 

 

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