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The Dark Side of the 'L'

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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".


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 27th, 2005 01:07 am (UTC)
this is great stuff.

until now I couldn't understand why Mandarin speakers would say things like "actua[i]r[/i]y"
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:50 am (UTC)
Now if only you could answer why both Japanese and Chinese speakers say 'breakfirst' instead of 'breakfast'...that one has always stumped me.
Aug. 29th, 2005 12:54 am (UTC)
"breakfirst"? I've never heard that...
Aug. 27th, 2005 07:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, the "l" or lack thereof is one of the easiest ways to tell that someone's Chinese. Like the professor who says "Herro" rather than "Hello."

I've also noticed a tendency to put "l" sounds where they don't necessarily belong. Example: the aforementioned professor who pronounced "leopard" "leopold."
Aug. 29th, 2005 12:54 am (UTC)
Only _some_ 'l's.

The Japanese are the ones who won't pronounce 'l's at all, they replace all of them with 'r's.

But Chinese do pronounce some 'l's. Just not all of them. "Hello" would be "hello". The 'e' would sound more like an 'a' or a 'u', but the 'l's in this case would be intact. =)
Aug. 27th, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC)
Mandarin and English have to be two of the strangest languages to pronounce! I've just finished four days of Chinese in a row and though I've learned pinyin before it's still killing me, and I can see how much of a struggle it is for the people who have had zero exposure to Mandarin sounds.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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