Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Totally Uvular

Posted by Neal on May 21, 2006

When I was about five years old, Mom would sometimes tell me that I “swallowed my Ls,” and I never knew what she was talking about. I had never felt an /l/ sound go down my throat and into my tummy. Mom would demonstrate a proper /l/, and though I could hear that her /l/ and mine were somehow different, I couldn’t figure out what the difference was. At about age 6 I finally figured out how to make an English /l, but even so, it wasn’t until I took a phonetics course in college that I learned precisely what I had been doing when I “swallowed” my /l/s: I had been producing a uvular nasal consonant (represented as [N] in the International Phonetic Alphabet), by putting the back of my tongue up to my uvula, turning on my voice (“phonating”), and letting air come out my nose as I would for an /m/, /n/, or /ŋ/ (“ng”).

Until recently, I was the only one I knew who’d had that particular pronunciation error, but then Karen Chung reported hearing it in Stephen King’s speech. More recently still, I became aware that Tom Brokaw is often lampooned for his /l/ pronunciation. I listened to Brokaw’s interview of New York Public Radio’s Leonard Lopate here, and it sounds like he might be using a uvular nasal for an /l/, too. And most recently of all, Adam has stopped pronouncing his /l/s as [w] or [n] as he was doing a year and a half ago (see here), to follow in my footsteps by switching to [N].

Where will the uvular /l/ turn up next? Maybe in your neighborhood.

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3 Responses to “Totally Uvular”

  1. ACW said

    My niece used to replace [l] with [n] unconditionally, when she was little. She did this even in words like “play”, where the result was an entirely un-English cluster. Now she’s grown, and I was amused to hear her struggle to pronounce the name of a distant relative, Pnina. In Hebrew this has two syllables and no epenthetic vowel, but my niece struggled and called her Punnina. This despite having produced [pn] clusters flawlessly as a toddler.

  2. [...] Not too long after I blogged about uvular /l/, I asked the speech-language pathologist at Adam and Doug’s school about it, while we watched Adam’s class play in the wading pools for “water day.” She’d never listened to Tom Brokaw enough to notice his /l/s, but another parent who was there said she couldn’t even stand to listen to him because he “swallows his Ls.” Then the three of us practiced making uvular /l/s, and if I do say so myself, mine were the best, what with my extensive childhool experience of making them. [...]

  3. C S said

    I found out today while talking about dark L that I can’t actually say it. I “swallow my Ls,” with the tip of my tongue not rising to the roof of my mouth. I have spent pretty much the whole day trying to figure out just what this sound is, and what I personally do is definitely not a uvular nasal, but a voiced uvular approximant almost like a French R (voiced uvular fricative)–my tongue does not touch my uvula, but comes very close. I have not found anyone else, my family included, who does this, but in eighteen years no one has ever pointed it out to me.

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