Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

L, Yes!

Posted by Neal on March 16, 2005

One of Adam’s therapy programs is the last remnant of his speech therapy targeting articulation. Specifically, it’s for him to practice “hiding his tongue” when he forms his alveolar consonants. We do this by having him read aloud a for a few minutes and paying special attention to his T’s, D’s, N’s, S’s, and Z’s, which he tends to say while sticking his tongue between his teeth. In fact, he tends to stick out his tongue when he says his L’s, too, but I’ve been letting that go for two reasons. First, it’s enough of an effort to pay attention to T, D, N, S, and Z. And second, I remember an incident from the first linguistics course I taught. I’m remembering it right now…

We were in the phonetics unit, which I’ve found to be the one that students consistently hate the most, probably because it’s the one that requires the most memorization. I was going over the places of articulation and came to the alveolar ridge, that little ridge behind your top front teeth just before your palate rises up to form the roof of your mouth. (Also referred to as “The Spot” by my speech therapist when I was a kid. She’d put a little rubber band on the tip of my tongue and tell me to put it on The Spot and hold it there for five minutes. She called that exercise the Mother’s Delight. Not fun.)

We went over the alveolar consonants, but when I got to L, some of the students started complaining. Well, started complaining more than they already were, to be precise. They weren’t putting their tongues there to say an L, they told me. “Really?” I asked, and had them say their L’s for me. Sure enough, they had their tongues peeking out between their front teeth, the same place as for the ‘th’ sounds, [θ] and [ð].

“Well, how about that?” I said. “So for about half of you, L is an interdental sound, instead of an alveolar one.” This, of course, raised an important question:

“Which one do we have to put down when it’s on the quiz?”

Since then I’ve found that quite a few Ohioans have interdental L, though it doesn’t sound different enough to attract attention. And, I’ve learned, so do Britney Spears, Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, and a number of people when they’re making a point of carefully articulating their L’s.

So where do you say your L’s? (And just so we’re clear: “in the kitchen,” “at work,” “in the car,” etc., are not what I have in mind.)

11 Responses to “L, Yes!”

  1. ACW said

    My /l/ is definitely apico-alveolar.

    By the way, if you’re wondering why you are getting few comments … there’s something screwy about the way the comments are wired at the moment. I can’t describe it adequately. Try to leave a comment yourself and you’ll see.

  2. Anonymous said

    Never having thought about it before I now can’t decide where my “l’s” get formed. I can make the sound with my tounge on “the spot”, between my teeth, and pressed up against the back of my incisors. The sound seems largely independent of the tip of my tounge. Rather it develops in the back of my mouth, near the root of my tounge.

    Jason B.

  3. jeff said

    as a native new yorker, my /l/ is also interdental. natalie merchant has a very clear alveolar (borderline retroflex) /l/, especially in the la-la-la’s in “verdi cries”.

  4. Estel said

    My /l/ definitely isn’t interdental, but I’m not sure whether my tongue tip prefers to be on my alveolar ridge or the back of my teeth. I think it’s probably alveolar, though.

    (I grew up in western BC, Canada)

  5. My /l/ definitely hits The Spot.

    I grew up in South Georgia and East Texas, for the most part.

  6. blahedo said

    I grew up in the Chicago area, and mine is clearly alveolar at the starts of words, although I’m finding it to be more dental when it comes elsewhere in the word. I can’t come up with any contexts where it’s actually interdental, though I suppose it’s not impossible.

    …when I *try* to make an “interdental L”, although the tongue pokes out between the teeth I’m still getting an alveolar point of articulation (it’s just that it’s not the very apex of the tongue doing the articulating). Are you sure that’s not what your students were doing?

  7. Neal said

    Blahedo: That’s a possibility that hadn’t occuured to me. I don’t know if it’s happening or not. Meanwhile, I’ve discovered my L’s are more dental than alveolar, too.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordn said

    Perhaps my having learned the Scandinavian languages later has influenced the way my American L’s sound: clear [l] is typically a dental sound in Swedish, and I’ve caught myself using the same sound in English.

  9. […] time this video played on the overhead flat-screen TV in the gym, I began to notice: Fergie has an interdental L! At least sometimes she does, assuming that she made the same articulatory movements during the […]

  10. […] pronouncing each with [ʃtr]. No other /str/ Word came up, although the handler did utter an interdental /l/ when she said, “Horses eat a LOT of food.” Otherwise, her /l/’s were alveolar, so […]

  11. […] pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. […]

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