Friday, 30 September 2011

what the L?

Every now and again someone asks why pronunciation dictionaries do not show dark l explicitly. If milk is pronounced mɪɫk, why do we write it as mɪlk?

There are various kinds of answer one can give.

1. The distinction between clear and dark l is not particularly important for EFL. And anyhow there are plenty of native speakers who do not make the distinction.

2. There are no pairs of words in English distinguished by the clear-dark distinction. Writing the clearer variant as (which exaggerates its palatalization somewhat), we can say that [] and [ɫ] are allophones of the same phoneme /l/. Their distribution is conditioned by the phonetic context: in RP and similar accents, is used before a vowel or j, ɫ is used elsewhere (including before a major boundary). As with other allophonic variation, we ignore it in dictionary transcription because it is more economical to state it once rather than mention it on every occasion. The learner needs to learn the general rule rather than memorize the appropriate variant for each word. Dictionary transcription, and EFL transcription in general, is phonemic (or, if you prefer, broad).

3. Every word or stem that ends in the lateral is sometimes pronounced with ɫ, sometimes with , depending on what follows. Although the citation form of kill is kɪɫ, and killed is always kɪɫd, in killing we have ˈkɪlʲɪŋ. While kill them is ˈkɪɫ ðəm, kill it is ˈkɪlʲ ɪt. And likewise for thousands of other items.

4. Even among NSs who follow the rule given, there is some disagreement in the precise definition of ‘boundary’. Whereas mainstream RP of my generation has in phrases such as Isle of Man and Middle East, there are other NSs who use ɫ in these phrases. For stylize I say ˈstaɪlʲaɪz, just as in island ˈaɪlʲənd, but there are many others for whom the morpheme boundary triggers pre-l breaking and/or dark l, thus ˈstaɪəlʲaɪz, ˈstaɪ(ə)ɫaɪz.

Whereas my kind of speech applies the rule to syllabic l just as to non-syllabic, there are other speakers who claim to make all syllabic laterals dark. How this works out in cases of potential compression (positional loss of syllabicity), e.g. fiddling ˈfɪdl̩ɪŋ ~ ˈfɪdlɪŋ, I am not sure.

Abercrombie adduced a nice example. In I feel ill he (like me) would use a clear l at the end of feel: aɪ fiːlʲ ˈɪɫ. But in I may not look ill, but I do feel ill it switches to dark: aɪ ˈmeɪ nɒt ˈlʊk ɪɫ | bət aɪ ˈduː ˈfiːɫ ɪɫ. I'd do just the same in not the Far East, but the Midd[ɫ̩] East. Why?


  1. Now that I think about it, would you pronounce the [r] in "not the Far East, but..."? (You should NOT do it, in order to be consistent with the explanation I have made up for the dark "l" in Middle East.)

  2. And if you do pronounce that [r], I will not consider it a legitimate but an INTRUSIVE one.

  3. Beatrice Portinari wrote:
    "And if you do pronounce that [r], I will not consider it a legitimate but an INTRUSIVE one"


  4. Then your explanation (which you haven't actually given us) must be wrong. I pronounce a perfectly normal linking r in Far East.

  5. Sidney, John:
    That particular "l" is dark because "Middle" is thought of by the speaker as an isolated word, contrasting with the equally isolated "Far". So, if you are not a rhotic speaker, the [r] you use (in this particular context, I must insist) cannot be, by definition, a "perfectly normal linking r".

  6. I'd think a person who says 'not the Far East, but the Midd[ɫ̩] East' is treating 'Far East' as one word, with a perfectly normal linking r (if that person be non-rhotic, that is)and only afterwards, in the process of speaking, breaks it up in the 'Far' and the 'East' component, to contrast its designate with another thing, called 'Middle East', which name has the same second component. This decomposition has no effect on the (now past and bygone, even if just a nanosecond ago) pronunciation of 'Far East', but only on that (to happen in another nanosecond) of 'Middle East', turning it to 'Middł East'.

    That's what I'd think, as a layman. Of course, there are pedantic or let us say conscientious persons, who say:

    ... not in the Fa-r-East, uhm, sorry, I mean FAH East, --- with emphasis on 'far', are you getting me? --- but, much rather, in the MIDDLE (middł) East... (and possibly even in the NEEAH East)

    but such persons are rather rare, methinketh.

    So sorry, Beatrix, but I'd side with John on this point.

  7. Contrastive meaning or emphasis is often expressed by inserting pauses before and/or after the word, at least in our minds. In the actual flow of speech these pauses may get omitted, but by the time we get to not pronounce the pause, we've already pronounced a dark l, and we can't go back to make it a clear l, so we end up having a vowel following a dark l.
    Far East is a bit different, because in isolation (i.e. before a pause), non-rhotic speakers don't have the [r] at the end of Far, but if the pause doesn't get realized, the [r] can easily appear between the two vowels. Phonetically there's no difference between a linking and an intrusive r.

  8. Nice explanation, Wojciech; yes that sounds quite plausible. So let's forget about the "r" and concentrate on the "l" -I was right then!

  9. @ teardrop: You took the words out of my mouth.

    Thank you.

  10. For me all these distinctions are as nothing, for I pronounce all dark /l/, all the time. As for fiddling, it is always [ˈfɪdɫ̩ɪŋ] and never [ˈfɪdɫɪŋ], which would be *fidling, rhyming with kidling.

  11. Might as well begin some (lateral?) topic drift:
    My /l/ is theoretically always-dark, like many Americans, but I had difficulty as a child with liquids /w, l, r/, and I'm still self-conscious about /l/ in particular. My production of can vary from near-vocalization* in the coda to a prevocalic dark-L with velarization (or pharyngealization?) so strong there can be a hint of a plosive (here's sort of an example). Is this otherwise attested?

    *I'm not from Philly, so this is nonstandard—but it does give me a certain fondness for Polish and Brazilian Portuguese.

  12. @ John Cowan: Hi, John!
    @ dirk: I'm afraid I can't understand the example.
    @ everybody: I promise to be quiet for a while.

  13. Beatrice:

    For what it's worth, my syllabic l at the end of middle, waddle etc is dark (but not vocalised as it is in mild, walled etc). It stays dark across word boundaries: middle of nowhere, waddle about. But it brightens across an internal morpheme boundary: middling, waddling.

    On the other hand, non-rhotic, I always link r across a word boundary: far away, more ale etc. So I always link the r in Far East, whether or not there's an intended contrast.

  14. In contrast to Sidney, in words with /dl/, like "middle", I don't always use dark L because I simply release the /d/ laterally, producing the normal palatalised /l/. This moves the syllable boundary back: "mi.dl". I would say I do this about 50% of the time when nothing follows the /dl/, more preceding a vowel, less preceding a consonant.

  15. dirck: Yeah, I've heard that kind of pronunciation (the kind in your example) from other Americans so it doesn't sound too weird to me. It kind of sounds like your dorsum is hitting your velum to me. I remember you mentioning that on here before.

    As for l-vocalization, do you really consider that to be non-standard outside of Philly?

  16. "If milk is pronounced mɪɫk, why do we write it as mɪlk?"

    If this is the only issue, surely we can save time and simply guide students to the basic differences of phonetic and phonemic systems. But be that as it may, the interaction between the phonetic and phonemic level of a particular language can be endlessly nuanced and fascinating.

    I use solely dark l's in English, like John reports above, so I hadn't been conscious of a dialectal "interlinking clear l" in Middle East. I learn something new.

    (By the way, this discussion is of a more respectable quality than the homophobic comments witnessed beforehand. Thanks for getting back on track. Let's keep it that way.)

  17. Ad Sidney Wood

    'On the other hand, non-rhotic, I always link r across a word boundary: far away, more ale etc. So I always link the r in Far East, whether or not there's an intended contrast'

    but suppose you would like to insert a pause between 'far' and 'east' --- to mark a really stark contrast between the Far East and some other east or easts --- would you then not say 'fah --- pause --- east' rather than 'fah -- linking r -- east'?

  18. I do think we should give more importance to the phonetic transcription. MW Learner's dictionary does not bother with dark L (we can assume generalized dark L is okay in General American), but it does not bother with flapped T's either. Why should we indicate the flap T pronunciation while ignoring the dark L pronunciation?

  19. Couldn't agree more, especially when some dictionaries use d instead of the flapped t. Do they not realize that by giving that as "the AmE pronunciation" they are asserting that there is total suspension of distinctive function in these cases, with no allophone distinct from /d/?

  20. @mallamb:

    There are many speakers for whom the /d/-/t/ opposition is completely suspended. For evidence, try a Google search for "very suddle".

  21. Indeed, I have not a flap but a /d/ followed by a syllabic /l/ (not even a /d/ with lateral plosion) in subtle, so suddle would be an excellent spelling for me: it rhymes precisely with muddle.

  22. Wojciech asked me about skipping linking r by inserting a pause in "Far East" for contrastive emphasis (2 Oct).

    I don't believe I do that. I know it's reported in the literature, and it's possibly a trick of rhetoric that some people might teach or learn. I suspect my usual way of contrasting, say, Far East with Middle East would be by intonation, shifting the prominence back to Far. That wouldn't affect the linking r.

  23. Ad Sidney Wood

    thank you for the answer to my question, Sidney.