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Why is the word folks sound like it’s pronounced [foʊks] rather than [fɔɫks]? It’s as though people are thinking it’s spelled fokes.

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    This may be a regional variable. The "l" may still be pronounced at least to some degree in parts of the Anglosphere. There may also be some variation in the way the vowel is rendered. – Rob_Ster Nov 27 '17 at 15:48
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This is the result of historical loss/vocalization of the sound /l/ in certain contexts. As Max Williams mentioned, we also see this loss in -alk words like walk, talk, chalk, balk, stalk. Some American English speakers have restored the /l/ in some of these words as well as some other words that traditionally have silent /l/ (like the -alm set). (I don't know if any speakers have retained the /l/ via continuous transmission from some accent that didn't have this sound change.)

The word yolk shows the same phenomenon.

The pronunciation of "olk" in non-Germanic words, and proper names is somewhat variable. The Oxford English Dictionary gives pronunciations with /l/ for "polka" in both British English and American English (although they usually have different vowel qualities), as well as an l-less pronunciation for American English speakers only.

  • Did we restore the /l/, or did some dialects just never stop pronouncing it? I don't know. – Peter Shor Nov 27 '17 at 16:41
  • @PeterShor: Well, I don't know for sure either, but that is my impression. It at least seems like the use of /l/ in "alm" words has become more frequent recently in American English. – sumelic Nov 27 '17 at 18:27
  • Yes, it's become more frequent. But a few people were pronouncing the /l/ 100 years ago. I don't know about 200 years ago. – Peter Shor Nov 27 '17 at 19:28
  • Do Brits also pronounce the l in "polka dots"? – bof Mar 2 '18 at 23:12
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The l is silent. I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce the "l", anyway. See also walk, talk, chalk, stalk, half, calf, could, should, would and probably many more.

As to "why do we have these silent letters?" - the language changes all the time, and pronounciation changes faster than spelling. It's inconsistent.

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    Another pair like that is palm and almond, where some people have an [ɑɫ], some have [ɔɫ], and still others have just [ɔ]. – tchrist Nov 27 '17 at 16:03
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For comparison, phonemically vault is /vɔlt/, wolf is /wʊlf/, and bolt is /bolt/, but how words like those actually get pronounced varies a great deal.

One thing that’s common is for /l/ in the coda to becomes not merely [ɫ] but all the way to [w], which creates a phonetic (but not phonemic) diphthong. That’s what’s happening here.

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