"Swallowed" L-sound in American English

For many years I’ve noticed the “swallowed” L sound in the accents of some Americans. I’m not really sure how to describe it, but if you have ever heard former baseball star Pete Rose talk, I’m sure you’ve heard it. With a swallowed L-sound, the word “like,” for example, can sound almost like “gike” if you’re not paying attention (but it is still not a consonantal plosive stop).

It’s very striking to me and it has an odd effect of striking me in the gut, if you know what I mean. Ordinarily I’m very curious about accents and dialects and am interested in hearing speech differences, but this sound really hits me in a negative way. Odd.

Anyway, I always assumed that this was a feature of working-class or uneducated accents. Besides Rose (who’s a Cincinnati native), I’ve heard it in Pittsburgh and some other Great Lakes working class accents. I haven’t been able to really pin down where it appears and where it doesn’t.

Anyway, this past weekend, I was listening to N.P.R.'s “Speaking of Faith,” and the guest for the show, Paul Elie, had this characteristic in his speech. (You can listen to the show here: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/faithfiredbylit/index.shtml). It’s the first time I’ve heard this characteristic in the speech of a non-working class person.

Does anyone else have any experience with the “swallowed” L? What accents does it appear in? Is it a geographical or class-based characteristic? Where does it come from? Are people who use the swallowed L unable to pronounce the standard L sound?

Tom Brokaw. Seriously. Best example evar.

From another recent post of mine:

Ascenray, are you talking about cases in which a speaker will use a dark “l” in the intial position of a word? That is, broadly, a Slavic trait. With the relatively high concentration of Eastern European ancestry in the American Midwest / Iron Belt, it’s not surprising to me that this has influenced some of the dialects of that area.


It could be, although my understanding of the “dark L” doesn’t quite match. My understanding is that the second “L” in “little” is a “dark L” sound. In my accent anyway, while it’s different from the initial L, my tongue still touches the alveolar ridge. The sound I’m describing seems to require the tongue to be completely drawn back away from the teeth and the alveolar ridge and the back of the tongue draws back toward the uvula.

This is very interesting. If you are right that I’m talking about the “dar L,” then I wonder if Pete Rose’s use of it is derived from the Macedonian community in Cincinnati.

Yep – that “l” sound with the tongue blade well off the alveolar ridge and root retracted and raised is the Russian “unpalatized l”. Also, this is the recently-obsolete version of the Polish “ł”, which has relatively recently come to be pronounced like English “w”.

I grew up making the L in my throat (I was “raising L” as well, but that’s another story.) I never really thought about the tongue-to-the-roof-of-the-mouth L until Joe Namath moved from the field to the broadcast booth. He consistently used the front L, and I thought it sounded like he did it to clean up his home accent.

My parents were both of western European stock, but both families had lived in the midwest US for generations.

When I say my dog Layla’s name, I use the front L, but I’m not sure why.

So you probably didn’t pick it up from your parents – actually my understanding is that people are more likely to pick up their peers’ accents rather than their parents’. So was the swallowed L the more common pronunciation in your neighbourhood or school?

Many times, when I’ve heard it the person turns out to be from around Philadelphia.

This would seem to bear my observations out:


I’ve always pronounced L this way (alveolar/back/“dark” L) when speaking English. I was quite surprised, as a child, to learn that most people don’t. I have no idea why I do it - English is my and my parents’ native language, and neither of my parents speaks that way. It’s not common in my part of the country, and it earned me a year of speech therapy in grade school (didn’t change a thing).

I am perfectly capable of producing the front L sound, and I do so when pronouncing isolated words or speaking in any language *except * English (Spanish, French, Persian, German). I don’t think about this; it just happens. Over the years, I’ve made an effort to use a front L in English, mainly so I don’t sound like I’m mumbling. How I pronounce it these days depends mainly on how tired I am and how fast I’m speaking.

My great-grandfather was born in Ruthenia (now SW Poland), so I’m sure he used the alveolar L when speaking whatever language he spoke there. However, he died before I was born and neither his wife nor his children spoke the language (they sounded like anyone else from their part of the US), so I think he’s off the hook for this one.

Does someone have a link to some sounds that don’t require a login? I’m interested in hearing this “dark l”. My tongue begins in the same place in leaf as it ends in all, at the front roof of my mouth. Maybe it’s a southern thing.

I used to thing the same thing about people who replace that with 'at as in 'at’s not a bad idea. I was the one who was uneducated about the significance of dialects.

I knew Tom Brokaw spoke with a “twist,” but I haven’t been able to determine the difference.

In most American English dialects, the blade of the tongue (roughly, the “front” of the tongue) is doing the same thing in producing both the clear and dark l’s.

The difference between the two is what the rear of the tongue is doing – resting during the clear l, and retracting a slight bit toward the hard palate for the dark l.

I can link some sound samples tomorrow. In the meantime, pay more attention to how the l’s in *leaf * and *ball * sound than to how they “feel” in your mouth. Listen to another speaker for additional reference.

Nope. My parents both had the L-in-the-throat. Dad came from Marion, Indiana and Mom came from southern Ohio. I picked up some hill-folk speech (walkin’) from classmates, and it drove my dad berzerkowitz. “Enunciate!” he would roar. Watta jerk. :rolleyes:

Okay, I think I know what you’re talking about now. The back of the tongue acts like it’s making a y sound, while the front makes a regular l. I thought it was part of the vowel sound. I had to compare bell and the French belle to even notice. Wouldn’t this be like the Italian gl found at the beginning of some words?

The way I described dark “l” above has an error. But yes, if the tongue moves toward the hard palate, then you do get what’s spelled in Italian as “gl”.

Alas, I goofed. Dark “l”, as heard in American English, moves the tongue root toward the soft palate (the region of the velum and uvula). :smack:

Sorry for throwing you off. BTW, that comparison you did between proper French “belle” and Engllish “bell” is a perfect demonstration of the difference between clear and dark “l”.

Trying to put a name to this nearly drove me crazy. Happy to have found this thread.

Two examples of this method of pronouncing the letter “l” are Peter Falk (actor ie: Colombo) and Mike Wolfe (American Pickers). I find this oddly fascinating.

If you watch the CW at all, and possibly other network TV, you will soon enough hear a Target commercial which uses a song with lyrics that go “why don’t you just meet me in the middle / I’m losing my mind just a little” or thereabouts.

I cannot hear this song and actually hear the /l/ sound at the ends of the lines, I hear “why don’t you just meet me in the middo / I’m losing my mind just a liddo.” YMMV.

Interesting. One type of London working-class accent will, or used to, pronounce what’s referred to above as a dark L rather closer to an ‘oo’ sound. I have no idea where it came from or when (19th century immigration of Slavic-speaking Ashkenazi Jews to the East End of London? But it’s also common in south London).

Here’s an example (you won’t have to put up with more than a few seconds of the song, fortunately):

Same thing happens in Australian pronunciation, which generally seems to work by minimising movement of any part of the mouth, to the point where ‘STRAYA’ is a very common pronunciation of ‘Australia’.