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.