Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Yike Phonowogy

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2004

As I mentioned earlier, Doug has just learned to say his /l/ sound. It’s usually one of the later phonemes that kids acquire; think of their stereotypical substitution of [w] for [l]. I had trouble with my /l/, too; well into elementary school I pronounced it as [N] (i.e., a uvular nasal consonant–what you get if you start to say the ng sound and then slide the body of your tongue as far back along your soft palate as you can without cutting off the airflow or gagging). Doug’s /l/ pronunciation, though, was different from any other kid’s that I’ve known.

Listening to him talk, the first thing you’d probably have noticed about his /l/ is that it’s pronounced as [y]. Here are some examples I heard him say from when he was almost three:

  • yoop (loop)
  • yook (look)
  • yeap (leap)
  • yick (lick)
  • yane (lane)
  • yeg (leg)
  • yaff (laugh)
  • yot (lot)
  • yucky (lucky)
  • youd (loud)
  • yike (like)

Examples like these were probably what the speech therapists heard during his routine speech and language assessments at his preschool, when they noted the [y] for [l] substitution. But if they’d listened to him some more, they’d have heard examples like these, where /l/ in a cluster is realized as [w]:

  • bwue (blue)
  • bwock (block)
  • pwease (please)
  • Pwateosaurus (Plateosaurus)
  • vwociraptor (Velociraptor, with the e dropping out)
  • fwow (flower)
  • Cwifford (Clifford)
  • Gwen (Glen)

They’d also have heard /l/ between vowels becoming [w]:

  • ewephant (elephant)
  • Awosaurus (Allosaurus)
  • yawipop (lollipop, with initial /l/ as [y])

And they’d have heard word-final /l/ becoming a [w]:

  • Neow (Neal)
  • bottow (bottle)

So a more accurate summation is to say that Doug’s /l/ is realized as [w] as a rule, and as [y] only word-initially. In fact, the [y] substitution is more subtle than just stated: It occurs at the beginning of a stressed syllable. All the (single-syllable) examples in the first list fit this description, as do the following examples, where the second syllable is stressed:

  • Yaa-Yaa (Laa-Laa, the yellow Teletubby)
  • ayong (along)

So far, so good. Doug’s /l/ realization fits into a nice rule: [y] at the beginning of stressed syllables, [w] elsewhere. But here’s where it gets really weird. Check these out:

  • syeep (sleep)
  • syip (slip)
  • syug (slug)

In a cluster with [s], /l/ is realized as [y] once again! Now the rule is more like: [y] at the beginning of stressed syllables AND in clusters with [s], [w] elsewhere.

If Doug’s /l/ pronunciation were a phonology problem in a textbook, I wouldn’t want to turn in that rule as my answer. I’d want to find what it was that the beginning of stressed syllables and clusters with [s] had in common, so I could once again have a nice neat rule: [y] under one condition, [w] elsewhere. But in the three years since I wrote down Doug’s data, I haven’t figured it out. And the speech therapists who did the assessment–and invited me to call their office with ANY questions–were no help at all. When I described the data to them, they said, “Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it.” Of course he will. But weren’t they at least a little curious about this strange pattern? Sheesh–I know their specialty is applied rather than theoretical linguistics, but couldn’t they have indulged an interesting theoretical question?

7 Responses to “I Yike Phonowogy”

  1. Anonymous said

    wow. that’s so interesting. maybe it’s because “S,” being a non-vocalised consonant, is not really recognised by his brain as part of the pronounced word, and thus it’s pronounced as if the “L” were at the beginning of the word.

  2. […] In a recent posting on the Linguist List (hat tip to phonoloblog’s Eric Bakovic) Karen Chung tells about hearing Stephen King in an interview pronouncing some of his /l/s as uvular nasal consonants, just like I did when I was a kid: I had trouble with my /l/, too; well into elementary school I pronounced it as [N] (i.e., a uvular nasal consonant–what you get if you start to say the ng sound and then slide the body of your tongue as far back along your soft palate as you can without cutting off the airflow or gagging). […]

  3. […] Today I took Doug and Adam over to Doug’s friend’s house to play. Doug’s friend had a little sister about Adam’s age. She was a little shy at first, but once she got into playing with the others and started talking, I had a moment of déjà vu. When she wanted to show her dad what she’d made, she said, “Yook!” When she approved of something, she said she yiked it. That brought back memories–memories of Doug and his L’s up until just about a year ago, which faithful readers may recall. (So I guess this would be more of a déjà entendu.)Every now and then Little Sister would say a perfectly articulated [l], but more often it was a [y]. I wondered if Little Sister shared the rest of Doug’s intriguing /l/ phonology. Like her, Doug had pronounced word-initial /l/ as [y]. But in a consonant cluster, Doug’s /l/ came out as [w]. If only I could find some way to elicit one of those from Little Sister… Aha! I picked up a Clifford doll, and asked, “Hey, Little Sister, who’s this?” […]

  4. […] Doug was this way, back when he pronounced some of his /l/s as [y]s. We’d have exchanges like this one: Doug: I’m yucky! Neal: You’re yucky? Doug: No, yucky! Neal: Oh, lucky? Doug: Yes! […]

  5. […] A couple of posts back, I was talking about Doug’s pronunciation of /l/, and how I couldn’t figure out a natural-seeming rule that would explain why he sometimes pronounced it as [y], and sometimes as [w]. Writing the post got me so curious that I sent a message to the Phonies, an informal research and discussion group in the Ohio State Linguistics Department. I asked them what they could make of it, and Phony Jeff Mielke rose to the task, offering an explanation that made more sense than anything I could think of. […]

  6. imparare said

    Interesting comments.. 😀

  7. […] you remember a few years ago, when I wrote about how Doug pronounced his /l/s until he was about six years old. Sometimes he’d say them […]

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