Happy tensing is claimed by Wikipedia to occur in General American and Australian English in words like "happy", "money", "valley" etc.

Here's an American lady saying "realy badly" as [ˈriɫɪ ˈbædɫɪ] at 1:07:53:


To my ear it's nowhere near [i] as in "ease", regardless of the length.

And here's an AmEn speaker with real tense [i] in [ˈrili ˈbædli] at 1:14:05 for comparison:


Also, Northern English accents are claimed not to have HT and use dark [ɫ] in all positions.

Indeed, here's a northerner saying [haɪɫɪ laɪkɫɪ] at 13:17:


Australian English, on the other hand, is supposed to have HT "universally" as Wikipedia claims.

Here's an Aussie with lax [hɑɪɫɪ lɑɪkɫɪ] at 9:21:


And an Aussie with tense [hɑɪli lɑɪkli] 32:19 for comparison:


My point is that I hear [ɫɪ]~[ɫɨ̞] quite frequently in English accents that are supposedly affected by HT. My theory is that some AmEn and AusEn speakers tend to have a darker, velarized [ɫ] in these positions which makes pronouncing a front [i] after it very awkward since [lˠ] pulls the tongue backwards towards velum. American [l] is velarized more or less everywhere.

As for AusEn, Wiki says that [l] can be velarized in it "in morpheme-final positions before a vowel" which is exactly the case with -ly.

Edit: This statement is obviously wrong as sumelic has shown below.

English is my second language, however, so I would like some native speaker with linguistic background to comment whether my observations are correct.

1 Answer 1


What follows is just my guesses, as I haven't read any literature that brings up a special status for words ending in -ly.

-ly doesn't feel like a special case to me

I think that happy-tensing is a phonological phenomenon, not just a phonetic phenomenon. I can't tell whether the first video actually makes use of the phone [ɪ], but I definitely hear the phoneme /i/ and not /ɪ/ at the end of the word "really". And actually, I hear /ɪ/ and not /i/ in the first syllable. Both of these might be cases where what I hear is affected by my own accent, as I pronounce "really" as /rɪli/ and not as /rilɪ/ or /rɪlɪ/.

A phonological definition of happy-tensing would be that speakers with this tensing identify the vowel at the end of words like "happy" with the vowel in words like "freeze" rather than with the vowel in words like "fizz". That doesn't require that the vowels are articulated exactly the same. For comparison, some American English speakers have a tensing change where /ɪ/ has been replaced by the phoneme /i/ before a velar nasal, in the sense that they report that words like "king" have the same vowel sound as words like "keen" and "seam", but my understanding is that the actual phonetic realization of /i/ in this context may still be intermediate between [ɪ] and [i].

From an articulatory standpoint, your suggestion that [ɫ] might condition a more open realization of the "happy" vowel seems fairly plausible to me, but from a phonological standpoint, I don't think it's likely that speakers would identify words like "happy" as having the phoneme /i/ but words like "badly" as having the phoneme /ɪ/. And even from an articulatory standpoint, I would expect that low stress should allow the /i/ in words like "happy" to be realized with a more open quality than /i/ in stressed syllables, even though "happy" doesn't contain [ɫ]. So overall, I'm not convinced that [ɫ] is all that relevant to whether a vowel is subject to happy-tensing.

I think that it may instead simply be a case of the "happy" vowel displaying a relatively high amount of free variation in its phonetic closeness while still being phonemically identified as /i/ by speakers of most American English and Australian accents.

There should be a way to test this: if the quality of the preceding /l/ is actually an important factor, that leads to the prediction that you should not hear any instances of the happy vowel sounding like [ɪ] after other consonants from American and Australian speakers (except for maybe after /r/, which can be articulated with a similarly backed tongue position).

the /l/ in -ly is not morpheme-final

I think that you've misapplied the rule that you cited for the distribution of clear and dark l. Although I think it's likely that a number of speakers have [ɫ] in -ly, that is not an expected result of a rule that says to use [ɫ] "in morpheme-final positions before a vowel". That rule would apply to words like goalie and mailing, which can be divided morphologically as goal-ie and mail-ing. The /l/ in -ly is not at the end of a morpheme: it comes at the start of the morpheme -ly.

Speakers who have [ɫ] in words like badly or highly would have to be following a rule that says to use [ɫ] in more contexts than just morpheme-final positions. For example, they might be following a rule that darkens /l/ when it is not foot-initial, regardless of its position in a morpheme or syllable.

  • I can hear now what you're talking about. Indeed, there is contrast between vowels in [rɪli] in the first example. My first tongue is Russian which distinguishes between [i] and [ɨ] so I'm quite sensitive to back and forth tongue movement in this region. But in English the contrast betwen /i:/ /ɪ/ is apparently about openness-closeness. So that velarized [ɫ] and retracted vowels in [rɪ̠ɫi̠] only define American accent, but still maintain [i] [ɪ] contrast. And the -ly thing was my mistake. [rɪli sɪli]. Thanks for your input! I accept your answer.
    – Disodium
    Jun 21, 2019 at 17:03
  • @Disodium: Glad this was helpful. The contrast between /i/ and /ɪ/ shows up in several different dimensions, so back-front is indeed relevant, as well as open-close, trajectory (/i/ is more likely to become closer at the end, e.g. a diphthongized realization like [i̞j]), and to some extent duration (but vowel duration is affected more strongly by other factors like syllable stress and the identity of the following consonant).
    – herisson
    Jun 21, 2019 at 23:01

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