Thursday, July 17, 2008

When good coarticulations go bad

In English we have two /l/ sounds, commonly called the "light" or "clear" l and the "dark" l. They exist in complementary distribution, with the light l in onsets and the dark l in codas (and syllable nuclei, though in these cases the l is underlyingly in coda position). The clear l is a regular lateral approximant, with the tip of the tongue resting on the teeth or alveolar ridge, depending on pronunciation, and the dark l identical in apical (tip) placement, but with co-occurring velar constriction by the lamina (the blade of the tongue).

However, Tom Brokaw for some reason just doesn't like clear l's. Not only does he pronounce all his l's (including those in onset position) dark, he doesn't even articulate the apical feature of the sound, instead using only the back of his tongue for the velar articulation, resulting in what can sound at times like a French "r" or Arabic "gh".

On a side note, my understanding of the two different l's in English was an extremely important step in my pronunciation of Spanish, which only has clear l's. Try it yourself: say "lamp" and "awl". The former is a clear l, the only l in most languages. The second is a dark l.


Alex Remington said...

John Stewart and Jennifer Lopez have clear l's. I noticed this without knowing quite how to describe it.

Mine are medium-dark, but Russian l's are -- like most things in that language -- hella dark. (Except when palatalized, of course.)

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Jennifer Lopez's seems natural, since she's a Spanish speaker, but that's interesting about John Stewart. I'll have to look up some clips.

Slavic l's are indeed really dark, in fact so much so that was historically a dark l in Polish is now a w (written as an l with a bar through it, the same symbol that represents the dark or velarized l in IPA).

Anonymous said...

I wrote about these "uvular L's" here.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Lamp only has a "ligh" L if your dialect is one which has light Ls in it. American English has no "Light" Ls whatsoever, meaning that both Ls in "lamp" and "awl" sound the same, whereas they don't sound similar at all in British English for example.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

I've heard of dialects without clear l's, but General American isn't one of them. Try saying "scale scaly". At least for me (a GA speaker), there's a clear (no pun intended) difference.

Clay said...

I also pronounce something like a dark L in all positions, also without the apical tip-of-the-tongue feature. It sounds most like a uvular approximant. It does not seem to be related to my dialect or even my family, though.