August 26th, 2005


The Dark Side of the 'L'

weather: sunny
outside: 26.0°C
mood: cheerful
music: Forest Cello - Nature's Path (Darius Gottlieb)
In English, the letter 'l' can represent two different sounds. An excellent example (in most people) of both of them, almost side by side, is in the word "little".

The first 'l' sound is a "light l". The tip of your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth and your tongue is relaxed.

The 'l' at the end is a "dark l". Further back along your tongue, it's raised.

We don't distinguish these two 'l' sounds in English, so native speakers usually have to be told there's a difference to begin with and even then, a lot of people still can't hear it. We definitely don't consciously understand when to use which one, we just do. I think the dark 'l' usually follows mid-open to open central and back vowels (see vowel chart), although there are regional differences.

I think this is neat enough in itself. But what was even neater was the realization that the dark 'l' is one of the things that contributes to a recognizable Chinese accent in English.

Part of what makes a Chinese accent, both Mandarin and Cantonese, is the absence of the dark 'l'. And it makes sense, it doesn't exist in Chinese. Native Chinese speakers may not understand how to pronounce a dark 'l' when they speak English. And even if they do, because Chinese is a very frontal language - most of the sounds we make in Chinese use the teeth, tip of the tongue and no further back than the middle of the tongue - the muscle movements involved in English will tire them out quickly. It takes more effort to be making a perfect dark 'l' every time.

They'll try to simulate it with just an open vowel.

That's why Cantonese speakers will say "aw" for "all", "caw" for "call", "litto" for "little", etc. Mandarin speakers say something like "ore" for "all" and "core" for "call".