Listen to a three-year-old say “doll,” and it will probably sound like “dow.” Along the same lines, a young child’s “trouble” becomes “trubbow,” “fall” becomes “foe,” “bell” becomes “bew.” Or so it sounds to the average listener. This is what is called L-vocalization, the tendency to turn the letter l at the end of words into some type of “w” or “oo” sound.
Of course, this quirk isn’t confined to children. Many adult accents of English use l-vocalization, perhaps the most famous being Cockney. Case in point is this clip of famous East Londoner Ray Winstone (listen to the words “whole,” “film,” “nostalgia” and “girl):
But to refer to l-vocalization as a Cockney feature would be inaccurate. It’s become widespread in the UK, even making headway into speakers of Received Pronunciation (Standard British): Tony Blair is a famous l-vocalizer, for example.
There are some l-vocalized accents less commented on, but just as notable:
1.) The mid-Atlantic United States. This feature is common in the Philadelphia-Baltimore corridor in the US (hence the notorious local pronunciation of the latter as “Bawdimore”). This feature extends westward as well, into much of the southern half of Pennsylvania.
2.) African-American Vernacular English. L-vocalization has long been a feature of the speech of African Americans.
3.) Glasgow English. L-vocalization has become typical of younger people in Glasgow. It is sometimes suggested this is an effect of the spread of Estuary or London English, but I’m not sure about that.
And there are many more accents of this type I’m not mentioning.
L-vocalization occurs in English because of something called the dark L. In many accents, the “l” in light and the “l” in bell are in not fact the same. The l that appears after vowels is velarized, meaning the tongue very slightly lifts toward the velum (the rear part of the roof of your mouth). Impressionistically speaking, this gives the dark L a “heavy” sound.
In accents with l-vocalization, what happens is that the actual “l” itself disappears, leaving only the sound created by the lifting of the tongue toward the velum. Depending on how rounded the lips are, this creates sounds such as w, oo, oh or any number of other variations.
But why do some accents do this while others don’t? This question stumps me. The simplest answer would be that it’s related to “r-dropping:” accents such as Cockney, African American Vernacular English and younger Glasgow English are noted for having various degrees of non-rhoticity (r-dropping). In these accents, the rule seems to be that after vowels, liquids (the type of consonant that including English l and r ) are dropped or weakened.
But then, how would you explain Pittsburgh, a city renowned for its l-vocalization that is also strongly rhotic (r-ful)? Not to mention that there are numerous non-rhotic accents without l-vocalization, such as Eastern New England* and most Northern English accents. There seems to be a kind of common denominator here, I just can’t figure out what it is.
As usual, I’m sure some of you have read something about this feature and its origins. Any credible theories?
*This being said, I’m not 100% sure there aren’t some Eastern New Englanders who do this. This feature is so variable, it’s incredibly hard to say which accents have it and which don’t.