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.
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.
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.
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:
help [heɫp] fall [fɔːɫ] elbow [ˈeɫbəʊ] old [əʊɫd] ultimate [ˈʌɫtɪmət] 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.
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.
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:
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:
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] and still is pronounced [stɪw] .
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.
“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)