To native speakers of English, how do you compare a vowel before a dark L and one without a dark L. Example words:

gold, goal, sold, soul, hole, hold, bowl, bold

go, so, ho, bow(noun)


pool, school, cool, tool

poo, coo, too


ball, hall, wall, mall


  1. Is the vowel/(start of diphthong) rounder? It will be helpful if you also state how round it is without an "l".
  2. Is it shorter?
  3. Does an additional glide/vowel appear?
  4. Is it further back in the mouth (does it sound deeper?)
  5. Does a consonant after the "l" change any of the above? (soul, sold)
  6. Is the "d" in 5 any different?
  7. Is the syllable tenser(requires more effort?)
  8. What happens when a dark L becomes a light L? ("soul and spirit", bowling, schooling, balling)

The above questions are merely there to help you if you get stuck, feel free to answer as you wish. Input is appreciated from all native speakers, regardless of accent, although I am currently trying to improve my American accent.

You can also use IPA to describe what you hear. You can also compare other vowels than those in the examples.

  • Does an additional glide appear? That depends on the speaker and the vowel, and maybe even on the word. For me, an additional glide appears for file, fail, feel, girl, toil but not for ball. There is usually an additional glide in whole, cruel, fool, owl, and towel, and usually not in hole, rule and foul, although I think I pronounce most words with these vowels both ways. And this is completely idiosyncratic ... I would highly recommend pronouncing all words rhyming with fool the same way. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 12:12

2 Answers 2


You've picked a big topic for your first question on this site! There is a fairly long Wikipedia article about English-language vowel changes before historic /l/; I would say that most of the listed vowel changes are related to the phenomenon of "dark l".

The specifics of how vowels are pronounced before "dark l" vary substantially between accents. Some accents merge certain vowel phonemes before dark l, but the specific vowel that are merged differ by region, or even just from speaker to speaker.

"Dark l" does tend to cause backing of the preceding vowel

A very widespread phenomenon is that "dark l" causes the preceding vowel to be pronounced backer (in phonetic terms). This is probably most noticeable with /u/, since for many speakers that vowel is otherwise fronted/centralized to something that could broadly be transcribed [ʉ]. But before "dark l", /u/ tends to be a truly back vowel that could broadly be transcribed as [u]. This backing also applies to vowels other than /u/, though: for example, for me /ɛ/ and /æ/ are definitely backer when they come right before [ɫ].

Addressing some of your other questions

I don't think a vowel is any shorter before [ɫ] than it would be expected to be before any sonorant consonant (e.g. /n/ or /m/). A sequence of a vowel + [ɫ] will be shorter before a voiceless consonant than in other contexts (e.g. the /ɛl/ in "melt" will have a shorter duration than the /ɛl/ in "meld" or "bell").

  1. Does an additional glide/vowel appear?

In some accents, including mine, a schwa-like sound tends to be inserted before dark l. It can be syllabic or non-syllabic (sometimes it's unclear to native speakers whether it is a full syllable or not): the extent to which it is present and seems syllabic can be based on the identity of the preceding vowel phoneme. For example, syllabic /ə/ is commonly inserted between /aɪ/ and dark l.

  1. Is the syllable tenser (requires more effort?)

I haven't yet encountered a definition of "tenseness" that seems plausible as a single phonetic characteristic to me. Whether a vowel is "tense" or "lax" in phonological terms depends on the vowel system of a dialect. Some of the neutralizations that I mentioned above (and that are described in detail at the linked Wikipedia article) could be seen as a kind of tense-lax neutralization before dark l (some similar contexts where we can see neutralization of the tense-lax contrast in some American English accents are before /ŋ/ and before /r/).

  1. What happens when a dark L becomes a light L?

That depends on the accent. In some accents, such as mine, dark L always stays dark. "Soul and spirit", bowling, schooling, balling, and for me, even monomorphemic trochees like yellow and follow have dark l. I don't know that much about how it works in accents that do change dark L to light L based on the context, but I would guess that the vowel is also lightened in that case.

  • To me, the distinction tense/lax seems to be just as nonsensical, if not more so, than the previous words for the same distinction: long and short. In American English, the word tense means "historically long vowel" and the word lax means "historically short vowel". Or maybe "can appear in an open syllable" and "cannot appear ...". Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 12:22
  • Yes, asking about „tenseness“ was inappropriate. I meant it more „literally“, as in „requires more muscle effort“ but then maybe this does not make sense to a native speaker who is so accustomed to pronouncing these words that they no longer notice which muscles flex and to what degree. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 14:10
  • @sumelic What you said about tense-lax neutralization before „ng“ and „r“ sparked my interest. Where can I read more about this? Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 14:16
  • @YordanGrigorov: Wikipedia also has an article about vowel changes before r. For /ŋ/, I was mainly thinking of the neutralization of /i/ and /ɪ/ in words like king, pink (the merged sound is perceived as /ɪ/ by most speakers, but apparently certain American English speakers perceive it as /i/) and of /æ/ and /e/ (some speakers hear words like bank as having the same vowel sound as words like bay).
    – herisson
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 14:25
  • What is your take on how rounded the lips are and about the uvularization that Greg Lee mentioned? Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 14:37

In my American English, vowels are uvularized before syllable offset "l", because the "l" is uvularized. "Uvularized" means that the back of the tongue approaches the uvula (see Uvularization). This can be described by the combination of SPE phonological features [-high,+back].

  • This is very interesting. Maybe I was mistaking uvularization for „roundedness“ when listening to American English, because words like „goal“, „soul“ sound to me as if the first part of the diphthong is a rounded „o“ sound, like a closer version of the o in „boy“. Then words like „go“ and „so“ do not sound so rounded to me, so I thought the L is making them rounder. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 14:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.