Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

They Call Their Yellow Lellow…

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2006

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 childhood experience of making them.

A couple of days later the SLP saw me again at the picnic for school volunteers, and this time she had an L-related question for me. There’s a long-standing articulation assessment that she and her peers use, and for the item that tests for /l/ production, the kid being tested has to identify the color of a yellow splotch. For years, this item has remained unchanged, despite the fact that kid after kid will say, “lellow” instead of “yellow.” It would be so easy, she told me, for the testmakers to have the examiners do what this SLP does: ask the kid, “Are you a boy?” (or girl, as appropriate) and listen to the yes that ensues. Then there wouldn’t be the interference from the following /l/. Had I ever heard of this mispronunciation, or heard kids doing it? I hadn’t, but Adam’s teacher, who was sitting nearby, confirmed that many kids said “lellow.” She was surprised the testmakers weren’t hip to it.

That night I googled “lellow” and found that it was indeed a well-known mispronunciation. I found a number of pages for SLPs that mentioned it; one of them called it an assimilatory change; another called it more specifically an example of consonant harmony. But that can’t be the whole story, since at least some kids who say “lellow” can still say “yell,” as in this mother’s account:

For the longest time, she couldn’t pronounce the “Y” in “yellow.” We even tried breaking it into sections:

Me: Say “yell.”
Zoë: Yell!
Me: Say “low.”
Zoë: Low!
Me: Say “yellow.”
Zoë: Lellow!

How do other kids say “yell,” or “you’ll,” or (where I come from) “y’all”? What about those whose last name is Yale or Yolen?

That’s data I don’t have. What I do have is some of the more entertaining quotations I found during my search. A lot of the pages were from parents talking about how their kids pronounce (or used to pronounce) yellow as lellow, like these:

And also the way my son says the word: “Lellow.” It’s so cute, and I haven’t corrected him for five years ,and when he goes to kindergarten in the fall people are going to be concerned. (link)

Once they start talking, our kids keep us in stitches with their unique way of looking at things and their version of the English language. That’s why we don’t give up when the terrible twos hit! My husband still calls kitties, “leelies” and yellow, “lellow” long after our son has mastered the language. Our favorite is when one of our kids was two and a half and got mad at his brother and yelled at him, “You choo choo train!!” (link)

She was named Lellow by my daughter that can’t yet pernounce Yellow yet. Lellow is about 9 months old .If you are intersted in adopting Lellow please email. (link)

The next one is interesting because of a different mispronunciation: This person’s daughter realizes /f/ as [b], except when it’s followed by /r/. Follow the link for this parent’s fun phonological investigation of 2.5-year-old Bug’s /f/s:

This morning at the breakfast table, Bug brought up the fact that someday we just might have a dog. The comment didn’t surprise me as this is something that she and K have discussed many times. He has told me that Bug plans on having a yellow dog named Friendly. What did surprise me was the way she said it: “Someday, Momma, we’ll have a lellow dog named Fwiendly!” (link)

This one is from a literacy volunteer in a school:

We began working on letters, looking in a magazine for words that started with the letter “y.” She found yarn, and yogurt. But when I asked her the color of a sun there on the page, she said “lellow.” She could say “yummie” and “yukkie” but could not say “yellow.”

“I just can’t say it,” she explained.

“It’s OK,” I said, glad to know a teacher would be there to help her because I didn’t have a clue. (link)

There were also pages from people who used to say “lellow” themselves:

i used to pronounce yellow “lellow”. i didn’t understand i said anything odd, but my friends babysitter would crack up and make me say it again and again… i just did it because i thought i was saying yellow. (link)

“Richie taught me how to say ‘yellow,’ instead of ‘lellow.’ Every time he’d see me he’d say, ‘Hey, Lellow.’ When I had a lemonade stand, Richie would walk up and ask for a lellow lemonade, hand me five dollars, and say, ‘Keep the change.’

“Now every time I walk outside and see the lellow sun shining, I’ll know it’s Richie up there smiling and saying, ‘Hi.'” (link)

Some people who remembered saying or hearing lellow recalled conflicts with their peers over the pronunciation:

My earliest educational memory is of arguing with a boy at my preschool over whether the name of his favorite color was “Yellow” or “Lellow”. I was totally right. (link)

Assuming that “I was totally right” meant that the writer was taking the yellow position, I wonder how he would have fared with this crowd:

In primary school, my best friend’s older sister told her that the word ‘yellow’ could also be correctly pronounced ‘lellow’. She went around saying the word ‘lellow’ so much that it became really annoying. I had a huge row with her about it, so we decided to have a vote amongst our other friends. They all decided that ‘lellow’ was in fact the correct pronounciation, and we all went around saying ‘lellow’ instead of ‘yellow’ for the rest of primary. (link)

Some kids say “lellow” up until their teens, as evidenced by these finds:

>>ive been told im very laid back
>>my current favorite color is yellow (lellow) (link)

hy muh name iz sara n im 11 years old! i live in MD! muh fav color iz yellow or lellow. i wuv elmo n cookie monster. muh lyfe culdnt get n e betta well maybe if i wuz more pretty n more popular. but who cares lol ill ttyl bye ~sara~ (link)

Which can sometimes bug their friends:

ryan is shortstop he kinda sucks he can’t say Yellow (LELLOW), he rides the LELLOW bus we get detentions in english fer we don’t know why… (link)

But lellow has its supporters. An unapologetic defense of lellow appears in “Zillapedia: the encyclopedia for you, by you”:

def. lellow means yellow, it sounds funner, n iz less annoying when said

Last edited by YankeeChick1360. (link)

So there you have it: lellow sounds funner n iz less annoying… That’s a tough argument to beat!


6 Responses to “They Call Their Yellow Lellow…”

  1. Graeme said

    When my son was really little (say around two), he would just drop the “y”. His favourite colours were “ellow”, “bink”, and “burple”. (At least, that’s the way we choose to remember it.)

    He had no problem actually forming the “y” sound, however. When my mother once told him that big boys don’t cry, he replied “But Grandma, I’m just a yittle boy.”

  2. Lonnie said

    My son also until recently pronounced the color lellow. He did not have the same pronunciation of other y words. We broke him of it with torture, electro shock therapy, and finally death. We would just repeat “yuh, yuh, yuh, YELLow; until he got it, then congratulated him when he did it correctly. Apparently also corrected at least one other child at his daycare. He still uses W for R at the beginnig of some words. Wed for red, etc.

  3. Neal said

    Graeme: Doug and Adam used to do that, too, so that lucky became yucky. Details are in the first posting in the “What the L” category.
    Lonnie: Wow, that’s impressive–whose death did the trick? His mother’s? A friend’s? A pet’s? Hopefully, now just the threat of killing someone will be enough to fix the W/R substitution.

  4. Editoress said

    As a kid, I couldn’t get “yellow pillow” together. It would come out as “yeddow pillow” or sometimes “yeddow piddow” but the l’s wouldn’t work. Just to torture me, relatives would add “little” . It took until I was about 8 to get it right. No wonder I don’t speak well to this day! 🙂

  5. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I once read about a kindergarten teacher who had problems teaching the R and L sounds, but none at all teaching W–or so she thought, until she checked one child’s paper. The children were supposed to circle pictures of objects whose names began with W; in addition to a waffle, a wagon and a window, someone had circled the picture of a tiger. The idea of confusing W and T seemed bizarre, so the teacher asked why that child had chosen the tiger. His explanation: “I thought it was a wion.”

  6. […] (the colour of a banana). When I finally got round to googling this phenomenon, I found that Neal Whitman wrote quite a bit about it a couple of years ago. Googling also turns up Lellow as Alicia Keys’ nickname. I wonder how […]

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