This question is about words that end in a syllabic L like

little /ˈlɪtl/ capital /ˈkæpɪtl/ able /ˈeɪbl/ bible /ˈbaɪbl/ syllable /ˈsɪləbl/

Question 1: Is it common for people who usually pronounce L as a dark L in the syllable coda to make an exception when the word ends in a syllabic L, and to then vocalize the L instead?

From observing my own speech I notice that when I say "ball" or "call" the L is a dark L. But, when the L is also a syllabic L, e.g. little or capital, the tip of my tongue does not touch the roof of my mouth behind my teeth – so I assume it is vocalized. (I am a native English speaker)

An extract from rachelsenglish.com:


To make the Dark L, pull the back of the tongue back. Uhl, uhl. Leave the tongue tip forward and down, the middle down too. Uhl, -uhl. So that’s the sound we want when we see schwa-L.

Question 2: Rachel says "leave the tongue tip forward and down" i.e. the tongue tip does not touch the roof of the mouth. Does this mean she is saying "vocalize L"?

Question 3: Is an L where the tip of the tongue does not touch the roof of the mouth a vocalized L?

  • Are you talking palatized like Valley Girl "cool"? Or the same sound after glottalized tt, as in various London accents?
    – KarlG
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 23:25
  • I would consider those to be syllabic /l/s so it's no surprise they behave differently. Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 0:46
  • Words like "able", "little", "brittle" I vocalize the L. But If I say "Ball" or "Call" the L is a dark L. so I wonder if this is common or just my own idiolect.
    – James
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 0:59
  • It’s not /tl/ or /le/. /tl/ isn’t a valid way for a word to end in English, and /le/, more commonly be written /leɪ/, is as in ‘chipotle’ or ‘mêlée’. What all your examples end in is /əl/: an /l/ preceded by a schwa. The schwa gets ‘eaten’ by the /l/, which becomes syllabic [l̩] (some would there is no schwa phoneme there at all, and /l̩/ is just the phoneme). I would personally be equally likely to vocalise a syllabic and a non-syllabic /l/, but I wouldn’t find it surprising for someone to only vocalise one or the other. Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 1:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I don't think everyone agrees that syllabic L is phonemically /əl/. I think there is nothing wrong with the transcription /tl/. Word final /təl/ and /tl/ do not contrast in standard English, outside of maybe some weird exceptional cases
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 3:15

1 Answer 1


Question 1

Here is the relevant excerpt from Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Eighth edition. p. 219) in terms of what happens in General British:enter image description here

So, in British English, at least, it's common for people who normally use dark [ɫ] in syllable codas to use a vocalised /l/, [ʊ], for word final syllabic /l/. However, this is more common when the preceding consonant involves the lips in some way (is bilabial or labio-dental). So more speakers will use a vocalic allophone in words such as able, bible and syllable than will for little or capital. The distribution in General American will probably be slightly different.

Question 2

In relation to the Rachel's English video, it would indeed be the case that if she wasn't using the tip of her tongue to make an alveolar contact, she would be producing a vocalised /l/. However, this is not what she is doing! She is making a regular dark [ɫ].

We cannot tell for certain why Rachel is giving that description of dark [ɫ], but I would bet a lot of money that the reason is that when doing her research, she was confused by the very misleading linguistic terminology.

Unfortunately, in linguistics the named parts of the tongue do not correspond to intuition or common sense. When you look in the mirror your tongue looks kind of flat and thin. This is an illusion. Your tongue is really a big fat ball with a bit stuck on the front of it.

When we talk about the tongue, there is the front bit which we use for most consonants. We can flap it about in all kinds of different ways. That's the BLADE of your tongue, the very end of which is the TIP. The part of the tongue that we are interested in right now is the big ball of muscle behind that. It starts where the tongue joins the floor of your mouth.

enter image description here

In the stylised diagram above, the blade of your tongue is represented by the small pink rectangular section. The square behind that represents the ball of your tongue. Now when we talk about the FRONT of your tongue raising or lowering, we are talking about the front of this back part of your tongue—the part represented by the square above. So when you think of your tongue in normal everyday terms, this is actually about half way down your tongue as you look at it in the mirror.

Now when we make a dark [ɫ], the tip and blade of the tongue make contact with the alveolar ridge and the front of the tongue remains low, while the back is raised. So the surface of the tongue assumes a concave shape as it dips downwards and then rises back up again at the back. It sounds very much as though Rachel has read in the literature that the front of the tongue is low for dark [ɫ] and has interpreted this to mean that the tip of the tongue is low (which, of course, is completely incorrect).

Question 3

Yes, an allophone of /l/ which doesn't involve the tongue touching the top of the mouth is probably a vocalised /l/.

Notes from Gimson on other varieties of English

Here is some further information from Gimson regarding dialects other than GB:

enter image description here

  • Is it just me, or does the end of the first Gibson quote not make any sense? After alveolar plosives the /l/ is regularly released laterally, but pronunciations like /ˡlɪtəl, mɪdəl/ (i.e., with lateral release) are increasingly heard? So normally lateral, but increasingly lateral. Say wha? (I actually find this surprising—it had never occurred to me that vocalised /l/ might be more more common after labials in RGB. I find I have to strain to vocalise people and velarise uncle: my instinct is to vocalise either both or neither.) Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 0:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet What he means by 'lateral release', is that the air being compressed behind the closure for the plosive isn't cleanly released into the air flowing out of the mouth. Instead, because the following [l] is homorganic, the tip of the tongue, stays on the alveolar ridge and the air is released by the side rims of the tongue suddenly lowering allowing the air to escape laterally (sideways). With /ˡlɪtəl/ or /mɪdəl/ the air from the plosive is released cleanly ('centrally', not laterally) during the transition from plosive to vowel (schwa). The releases sound a bit different. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 0:45
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Of course, Cruttenden is talking phonetics, not phonology here. Interesting about your pron. I've discovered that I do vocalise in people even though I thought I didn't. I don't think I vocalise with uncle in normal speech - but who knows ...? Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 0:48
  • 1
    Oh, release of the plosive. That makes sense. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 7:30
  • I'm confused. In the first Gimson quote - Is "L" in "little" and "middle" usually vocalised? Or is vocalising it "childish" and avoided?
    – James
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 23:15

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