Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Phonies Yike Phonowogy

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2004

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.

It all has to do with “clear” and “dark” l, two different ways that /l/ is pronounced in English. Clear l, also known as non-velarized l, is the variety you get at the front of stressed vowels, for example like and luck. Dark l, aka velarized l, is what you get at the end of a syllable, as in elephant or Neal. Whether you’re making a clear or a dark l, the tip of your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth (or for some speakers, is between their front teeth). The difference between clear and dark is that for the dark l, the back of your tongue is raised up near the roof of your mouth, too–to the soft part of the palate called the velum (hence the name ‘velarized’). This is a difference that you don’t ever notice until you hear a speaker whose l’s just don’t sound quite right. For example, if you ever hear Snigdha Prakash on NPR, listen to how she says dollar. She’s pronouncing it with a clear l, and it sounds a little off.

So far, the clear and dark l distribution in English parallels Doug’s [y]/[w] distribution: He’s realizing clear l as [y], and dark l as [w]. But what about the consonant clusters, where he sometimes has [y] and sometimes has [w]? Jeff notes that except for those that start with [s], the clusters all start with either labial consonants ([p,b,v,f]) or velars ([k,g]). As it turns out, [w] is both labial and velar: you round your lips to say it, and you also raise the back of your tongue. So if you say an /l/ after a labial or velar consonant, chances are that your lips or tongue will still be in position for that consonant, giving your /l/ sound some of the properties of a [w]. So given a choice between [y] and [w], it’s not surprising that Doug’s /l/ should end up as [w] in these clusters, but not in the clusters beginning with [s]. As Jeff sums it up, “Doug was producing [w] in the environments where the adult /l/ sounds most like [w]: when it’s dark l or when it’s a coarticulatorily velarized/labialized clear l, and producing [y] where it sounds less like [w].”

And as a bonus, Jeff adds a falsifiable prediction: “Doug might have produced /l/ as [y] in two environments we don’t see in the data: word-initially before an unstressed vowel, and after [the sh sound] but I can’t think of any words like that that I would expect a 3-year-old to say.” In other words, we would expect Doug to have pronounced a name such as Latanya as Yatanya, and a word like schlep as shyep. But he never said either of those words (at least, not within my hearing), so I guess we’ll never know for sure.

5 Responses to “Phonies Yike Phonowogy”

  1. “But he never said either of those words (at least, not within my hearing), so I guess we’ll never know for sure.”

    See, that’s what you get for helping Doug learn to say his l’s. If you’d just let it go, you could have added to your corpus and answered this question.

  2. Anonymous said

    I beg to differ.
    Clear /l/ occurs at the onset of a syllable or intervocalically, which pretty much dismisses the ‘elephant’ example — to start with, the /l/ there occurs in an onset position (English onset-maximisation principle), and secondly, it’s intervocalic (surrounded by vowels). A dark (velarised) /l/ occurs syllable-finally, as in ‘temple’, or before another consonant, as in ‘halt’.

    There are some dialects that do not have the velarised variety, such as Irish English (although it is beginning to creep up in Dublin, following the pattern or RP distribution of /l/), and some of the Welsh accents (South Wales, to be precise). The absence of the clear variety is a trademark of American and Australian English, and also some of the broader Scottish accents.

  3. Neal said

    In reading up on clear and dark /l/, I’ve learned that there is a good bit of variation on where speakers use dark l. Some dialects don’t use them at all, as you point out for Irish. Other dialects supposedly use them everywhere. As for me, the intervocalic /l/ in elephant is dark: when I say it without velarization, it sounds weird, like Snigdha Prakash’s dollar. So if Doug was hearing the language from me (which he was) or others with a dark /l/ in the same places as I put them, the analysis still seems to work.

  4. […] The first time I heard this, is was passingly weird. But now I’ve heard it twice, and I want to know what’s going on. In a scene in the movie Ice Age, a sloth character needs to fake his own death in front of some enemies. He does this by jumping into a saber-toothed tiger’s mouth and shouting, “Help! Help!” Both times when he yells “Help!”, he uses clear /l/ rather than velarized /l/ (a distinction discussed earlier here). It’s very distinct; it’s what makes his cries sound so fake and melodramatic. Why it should do that, I don’t know, other than that it makes his pronunciation sound unnatural, foreign.More recently, Doug and Adam were watching a Fairly Oddparents video, with an episode called “Crime Wave.” Here, too, someone who was faking a call for help used the clear /l/ to do it. Why the correlation between deliberately corny melodrama and clear /l/? Is the idea just to violate some phonological rule of English to draw attention to the utterance? Explore posts in the same categories: What the L […]

  5. […] [w]; for example, syeep for sleep. So after reading Inkelas and Rose’s article, I still think Jeff Mielke’s analysis, involving clear and dark /l/, is the better candidate. But you know whose language is (or at least […]

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