Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘What the L’ Category

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.

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Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 6 Comments »

Totally Uvular

Posted by Neal on May 21, 2006

When I was about five years old, Mom would sometimes tell me that I “swallowed my Ls,” and I never knew what she was talking about. I had never felt an /l/ sound go down my throat and into my tummy. Mom would demonstrate a proper /l/, and though I could hear that her /l/ and mine were somehow different, I couldn’t figure out what the difference was. At about age 6 I finally figured out how to make an English /l, but even so, it wasn’t until I took a phonetics course in college that I learned precisely what I had been doing when I “swallowed” my /l/s: I had been producing a uvular nasal consonant (represented as [N] in the International Phonetic Alphabet), by putting the back of my tongue up to my uvula, turning on my voice (“phonating”), and letting air come out my nose as I would for an /m/, /n/, or /ŋ/ (“ng”).

Until recently, I was the only one I knew who’d had that particular pronunciation error, but then Karen Chung reported hearing it in Stephen King’s speech. More recently still, I became aware that Tom Brokaw is often lampooned for his /l/ pronunciation. I listened to Brokaw’s interview of New York Public Radio’s Leonard Lopate here, and it sounds like he might be using a uvular nasal for an /l/, too. And most recently of all, Adam has stopped pronouncing his /l/s as [w] or [n] as he was doing a year and a half ago (see here), to follow in my footsteps by switching to [N].

Where will the uvular /l/ turn up next? Maybe in your neighborhood.

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 3 Comments »

Stephen King: Horror Master, /l/ Uvularizer, Overnegator

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2006

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).

But nevermind Mr. King’s phonetics, how about his semantics? In the January 27 issue of Entertainment Weekly, I read an excerpt from his latest novel, Cell, and found this gem:

Clay could remember the words from the days when he’d had no reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever.

OK, let’s see…

reason to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Oh, that’s bad. He thinks his marriage might not last forever.

reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Ah, that’s good! He thinks it will last forever!

no reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Oh, that’s bad. He thinks his marriage won’t last forever. But wait a minute–that was then, which the text implies is different from now, but we already learned a couple of pages ago that he currently doesn’t think his marriage will last forever. Stephen King must have committed an overnegation.

Posted in Overnegation, What the L | 2 Comments »

Yittle Sister

Posted by Neal on April 21, 2005

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?”

“Cwifford,” she said. Sure enough!

But now for the kicker: Did Little Sister have the same confounding exception to the rule that Doug had had? To wit, in an /sl/ cluster, did the /l/ come out as a [w], as with other clusters, or did it come out as a [y]?

I asked, “Hey, Little Sister, uh, what do you do in your bed at night?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, I’m just curious. Do you exercise? No? Do you eat ice cream?”

“No, I sweep!” she told me.

So Little Sister’s rule for /l/ in a cluster didn’t have the troublesome exception that Doug’s did. Nice. Doug would have said “syeep.”

At this point, I figured I’d better tell her dad what the heck I was doing. (Come to think of it, it was probably a good thing he was in the room with us when I started asking her what she did in bed. Imagine her sitting at the supper table and telling her mom and dad, “Doug’s dad is weird. He asked me what I did in bed.” Yikes!) Anyway, he was pretty cool about my impromptu research, and when I mentioned that Doug’s /l/ between vowels had come out as [w], he even called Little Sister over, pointed to a picture of Delilah in a kid’s Bible story book and asked her who she was.

“Deyilah,” she said. Oops. Now I remembered the subtler version of Doug’s rule: His /l/ had come out as [y] at the beginning of any stressed syllable (thus, Yaa-Yaa for Laa-Laa the Teletubby), not just the beginning of a word. You needed a word like lollipop (“yawipop”) in order to get that [w] between vowels. Little Sister’s dad was amazingly accommodating! When I told him this latest refinement of the rule, he asked her to say lollipop. She’d had enough, though, and was back to playing with the boys. Oh, well.

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 2 Comments »

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.)

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 11 Comments »


Posted by Neal on November 4, 2004

Adam rediscovered the bathtub crayons a couple of nights ago, and had me take them down from the high cabinet where he’d caught a glimpse of them. Now who would have stashed those messy things up there? Anyway, after scribbling with them in the tub for a while, and then writing his name, he decided for no particular reason to sound out and write xylophone. This was actually some good generalizing from this therapy. In therapy, he has worked on the sounds of the letters as part of his academic program, and on writing the letters as part of his fine motor program. So I watched as he carefully said the word bit by bit, and wrote, in these colors, X Z I W F U N.

The X he knew, since X is always for either xylophone or X-ray. The Z, I, F, and N were appropriate choices for the sounds he heard, and the U was pretty close. The W was intriguing, though. Adam does indeed pronounce his /l/ as [w] (and also as [n], word-initially), but my understanding about a child’s language acquisition is that even when they can’t produce all the phonemes properly, they can still recognize proper and improper pronunciation. And since Adam has mastered his letter-sounds program and knows the sound L makes, I would have expected Adam to recognize that the letter he needed here was L, even though he himself pronounces it as [w].

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!

I guess it’s time for me to experiment on my kids again. Tomorrow night I’ll suggest writing a word he hasn’t seen spelled that often, something like lizard or lock, or better yet a nonsense word like laggis, and see if he starts out with an L or an N. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Last night, I suggested that Adam write ladder. He did, and spelled it LADR.

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 4 Comments »

How L-odramatic

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2004

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?

Posted in What the L | 5 Comments »

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.

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 5 Comments »

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?

Posted in The darndest things, What the L | 7 Comments »