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"Dark L" is "L" at the end of the word or after a vowel sound. Example: ball, pull.

"Light L" is "L" at the beginning or before a vowel sound. Example: light, love.

There are 4 explanations of how to pronounce "dark L":

  • 1st explanation: the tongue tip must contact the ridge right behind the upper teeth.

  • 2nd explanation: before the tongue tip must contact the ridge right behind the upper teeth, you must curl the tongue and make sound like /r/ before make the /l/ as in the 1st explanation.

  • 3rd explanation: just put the tongue between upper and lower teeth is enough to make the dark L

  • 4th explanation: the tongue tip must contact the ridge right behind the upper teeth & the back of the tongue raises up (a British teacher teaches that).

see this vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pejo6YC_BnM and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4En7vG1wV4 for more info

So what is the correct way to make the "dark L"?

  • I can't give an authoritative answer to this, but as a native speaker of American-English who studied diction in acting school, explanation #1 seems like the best of the four. – William Bloom Jan 9 '15 at 9:41
  • My daughter uses #3, the rest of the family do #1. She can't do #1, so we get her to say "falafel" and we laugh at her. – Phil M Jones Jan 9 '15 at 10:22
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    "There r 4 explanation"? Seriously, don't do this on a language site. We have no upper limit of letters in a question. – anongoodnurse Jan 9 '15 at 10:51
  • @medica? u mean there r more explanation? – Tom Jan 9 '15 at 10:52
  • @user105551 Welcome to ELU! I think Medica means please use full words: are not r, for example :) – Araucaria Jan 9 '15 at 11:10
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I watched the first Youtube video you referenced, done by Rachel, and I think several of the observations are good, but overall, it misses the point. The important difference between dark l and neutral l in English is retraction of the tongue body for the dark l. (I'm calling the non-dark l "neutral", because I don't think l in English is truly light -- just sometimes not dark.)

The position of the tongue tip doesn't matter. When the body of the tongue is pulled back, that may affect the position of the tongue tip, but that's just because the tongue tip and the tongue body are connected -- they're both part of the tongue. It's the retraction of the tongue body that makes the l dark, whether or not there is any difference in the position of the tip.

Rachel talks about the pronunciation of "real" and observes, correctly, that there is an extra vowel sound that intrudes between the [i] and the [l]. But that is not what makes the [l] dark. When the tongue body is pulled back for the dark l, the body of the tongue has to move from front to back, since it was pushed to the front to make the [i] vowel, and it has to be pulled back for the dark l. To get from one place to the other, the tongue body has to move through an intermediate central position, and this is what Rachel hears as an extra vowel sound between the [i] and [l]. This central glide is predictable if you have a correct idea about how dark l is articulated.

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The rule for dark /l/ is that we always use dark /l/ when /l/ isn't followed by a vowel. So in the word falafel the first /l/ is clear, the second is dark.

Arguably, there are two parts to an /l/ sound. The first is caused by the redirection of the air as it travels out of the vocal tract. This is caused by the tongue tip making firm contact with the alveolar ridge, the flat shelf behind the teeth. This redirects the air sideways out of the mouth giving a special kind of resonance.

The second part of the dark /l/ sound, concerns what kind of vowel quality the sound has. The quality of dark /l/ is something like cardinal vowel 7, a high mid, back, rounded vowel. For learners, you could aim for an /ʊ/ sound, which would do fine. For a vowel like this, the back of the tongue is raised, but it's not easy to consciously raise this part of the tongue: it is much simpler to just aim for an /ʊ/ vowel. This is the vowel we use in the word put.

  • To make a good dark /l/ then, make an /ʊ/ sound, whilst putting the tongue tip on the alveolar ridge behind the teeth.

This effectively will achieve what is described in the fourth explanation.

Edit note: The vowel behind dark /l/ differs between speakers of RP. Alan Cruttenden in Gimson's Pronunciation of English describes it thus:

Variations in the quality of the back vowel resonance associated with [ɫ] are found among RP speakers, with a range extending from [ö], [ʊ], or [ɤ] to [ɔ:] or [ʌ].

7th Ed, p. 216

Some readers might find that using /ʊ/ sounds a bit too Londony (see David Garner's comment below). However, it's probably the most commonly found, and is easy for non-native speakers, who will recognise the quality from the FOOT vowel, in words like put.

  • As a native [Northern England] speaker, I'm not convinced by Araucaria'm method. The word 'milk' has a dark L, but if I try to say it following A's method, it comes out with the Cockney vocalized L. I'd say, Concentrate on raising the back of the tongue [but not too much, or it comes out as 'stage Russian'] and let the tip of the tongue rest a little behind the teeth. – David Garner Jan 9 '15 at 12:22
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    @DavidGarner Exactly so, the vocalised /l/ is a bit like a dark /l/ without the contact on the alveolar ridge. The quality of the vowel behind the dark /l/, [ɫ], varies alot between speakers and areas. The world famous Grimsons Pronunciation of English describes it thus: Variations in the quality of the back vowel resonance associated with [ɫ] are found ... with a range extending from [ö], [ʊ], or [ɤ] to [ɔ:] or [ʌ] If your particular vowel or variation has a different quality, the [ʊ] may sound weird to you. However, it's good for learners because they are already familiar ... – Araucaria Jan 9 '15 at 13:27
  • @DavidGarner ... with the FOOT vowel, /ʊ/. It's also one of the most common realisations, and as you point out, very similar to the vocalised /l/ which has now moved into standard English for many young speakers. i.e. it makes vocalised /l/ easier to recognise as /l/. It can be pretty hard for learners to raise the "back" of their tongue. This specialised meaning of 'back' requires an anatomy lesson before it can be understood, imo! My guess from your descrioption is that your using a [ɤ]-like vowel in your dark /l/. If you're teaching and can demonstrate, that would work fine too! :) – Araucaria Jan 9 '15 at 13:28
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    No, I'm just a phonetics and language enthusiast, but I'm convinced that I use a traditional dark L until I artificially try to say it by using the FOOT-vowel. – David Garner Jan 9 '15 at 13:49
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    Araucaria, I've now looked up what you mean by "Gimson's versions", and I'll concede that it's more complicated than I imagined - thank-you. – David Garner Jan 10 '15 at 19:17
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Dark L --> Why not simply add voice to /h/ ? f-v-f-v s-z-s-z h-ɫ-h-ɫ

Works for me. I'm mid-atlantic being born in Ontario and raised in South England. I use a dark L in milk but a clear L on the end of many words like kill. I love the accents from elsewhere in the UK so I'm not recommending mine, except to say I'm usually understood well enough.

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Phonetically, the dark l [ɫ] is basically the light l [l] velarized.

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    Adding voice to [h] makes it [ɦ], which is definitely not what you want. For more information, see this link: phon.ucl.ac.uk/courses/plin/plin2108/week5.php – Arnold Pinson Apr 3 '17 at 4:38
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    We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed. – Skooba Apr 3 '17 at 12:50
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Being someone with the same confusion I found this video really helped me in my pronunciation. I know this was question was asked a while ago, but for anyone with the same problem, I hope this will help.

To summarize a bit of the important parts of the video: the host goes on to talk about how the dark L is more commonly found in British English speakers, and less in American English speakers. He also talk about the extreme similarity of the dark L to that of a "w" sound, describing the pronunciation as "putting your tongue in the middle of your mouth, and not letting [it] touch anything."

  • Can you summarize the important parts of that video in your answer? Link-only answers will be deleted. See here for more information on this policy. – Laurel Sep 23 '18 at 18:59
  • @Laurel Is that better? – Alex Dukhan Sep 23 '18 at 19:14

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