Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Clumsy Interdental L

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2008

About the fourth or fifth 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 lipsynching for the video that she made when she was being recorded in the studio. I’d embed the video here, but it won’t play when I do, so you’ll just have to follow this link to the video on Google to check it out. Watch closely at 1:00 for falling and a second later for love; and again at 1:52 and 1:53 for the same words when the chorus is repeated. You’ll see her tongue sticking right out between her upper and lower teeth to make the L’s. The chorus, by the way, is clumsy ’cause I’m falling in love, and as far as I can tell, Fergie’s L in clumsy is an ordinary alveolar one. In between those two times, there’s one more repetition of clumsy ’cause I’m falling in love where the L’s seem to be alveolar. There are other L’s in the song, but not where you get a clear and sufficiently close view of her mouth to see how she’s pronouncing them.

On the other hand… When I realized the video couldn’t be embedded here, and went looking for another copy somewhere, I found this next one, which seems to be a video recording made in the studio, and (one would imagine) not lipsynched. This video gives many clear close-ups for pronunciations of flippin’, fumblin’, slippin’, stumblin’, clumsy ’cause I’m fallin’ in love, and all the L’s there are clearly alveolar, with the tongue tip behind the upper teeth. So I guess the interdental articulation is just for show.

Oh, and did you catch the witchoo pronunciation of with you at the very end?

UPDATE, Sept. 12, 2010: Replaced broken video link.

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12 Responses to “Clumsy Interdental L”

  1. Glen said

    I think the interdental L is an affectation that’s supposed to look sexy (at least in Fergie’s case). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen other singers do it, though I can’t name a specific one, and it seems like it’s always with the word “love.”

  2. Emma said

    I’m glad to find confirmation that I’m not the only one who uses interdental L’s, as I had almost come to believe when taking my first phonetics class. For awhile I tried to correct them to alveolar, but always felt like I was choking on my tongue and so gave up. Imagine my surprise later when I realized that my L’s in Spanish are alveolar and I have no problem with them! Is this just due to the way I heard these languages while learning to speak them? (native English, Spanish in high school)

  3. Neal said

    Glen: I’ll have to be on the lookout for this.
    Emma: Your guess sounds reasonable to me. I’m surprised, like you, to learn that you had no trouble with Spanish L’s. Usually, once speakers identify some sound in another language as equivalent to some phoneme in their native language, they’ll pronounce it the way they do their native-language phoneme.

  4. Ran said

    @Emma: That’s interesting. When I learned I’d been pronouncing my /n/ wrong, I was able to fix it very quickly in the languages that I learned in school (French and Spanish), but it took me longer to fix it in my native languages (English and Hebrew), presumably because with the former I was already used to having to put conscious effort into my pronunciation, and into improving my pronunciation as I learned new things. But you seem to be saying that when you learned you’d been pronouncing /l/ “wrong” in English, you discovered that you’d already been pronouncing it right in Spanish. That’s kind of amazing.

  5. Frogman said

    On this video of The Pogues performing the song Dirty Old Town, one can clearly observe an interdental L at 2’29

  6. Emma said

    Neal:Had I primarily been working with written material I probably would have had more transference from my English pronunciation, but I discovered that I just didn’t sound the same as my teacher until I adjusted how I spoke. Imitation is a wonderful thing (at least in the case of accent-acquisition!) Incidentally, my mother has similar L usage. Probably where I got it from…

    I think what amazes me most is not that I COULD form the alveolar L in Spanish and it feel normal, but rather that it still feels awkward in English.
    Ran: Your ‘conscious effort’ explanation probably works here too. I know perfectly well that people understand my English and so don’t really feel like being bothered with correcting something no non-linguist has ever mentioned before, whereas in my early years of studying Spanish I was concerned about not sounding foreign.

  7. Neal said

    Frogman: Sure enough; thanks for bringing it to our attention. For those who haven’t viewed the video, it’s a word-final L (still). All the other L’s in the song seem to be alveolar, including two instances of love.

  8. lynneguist said

    Saw Britney Spears using interdental L in the video for ‘Toxic’ the other day. I agree with Glen that it’s a ‘sexy’ affectation.

  9. Neal said

    Thanks, Lynne. I’ve checked it out…
    0.18 “a guy like you”
    1.13 “love”
    1.42 “it’s all around” (?)
    Those are all the L’s where there was a close enough view of her mouth to tell, and they’re all interdental. Maybe it is a sexy affectation, but does anyone know how Britney Spears says her L’s in ordinary speech, or in contexts other than lipsynching for a video?

  10. Glen said

    There must be some video of Britney interviews on the Internet, especially given the recent MTV special.

  11. Dano said

    here in the song naturally there is a dental /L/… why is that??

    • Neal said

      Thanks for pointing this out. About the only time you get a close enough look at Selena Gomez’s mouth to see how she’s saying her /l/ is when she says naturally, but this is in the chorus and we get a lot of closeups. Sure enough, she makes an interdental /l/ almost every time (for the first one and I think the last one, her tongue is behind her teeth for an alveolar /l/). Of course, the Fergie videos taught me that how one lip-syncs isn’t necessarily how they actually sing. I guess I’ll just have to see the movie of Beezus and Ramona that she’ll be starring in, and watch how she talks in it. (BTW, I can’t believe they’re flip-flopping the title for the movie and giving Ramona top billing! Can you?)

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