The “Trubbow” with L-Vocalization

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.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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80 Responses to The “Trubbow” with L-Vocalization

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    My completely unscientific observation is that l-vocalization is spreading in the US. I wonder if this has been dealt with elsewhere – perhaps on John Wells’ Phonetic Blog or Language Log?

    • trawicks says:

      I totally agree with that assessment. I’ve noticed this in some younger speakers in my home state of Connecticut, for example. I did a search on Wells’ blog, though, and couldn’t find much on its spread in the US.

      On a side note, this is stated in a few places on the web as a feature of New York City English. That strikes me as odd: NYC perhaps has some variants with this feature, but I’ve never thought of it as an l-vocalized area.

    • dw says:

      BTW I would argue that L-vocalization is virtually standard in RP today, despite its being stigmatized a few decades ago. Even Derek Jacobi’s otherwise arch or even affected RP lapses into it occasionally (listen to “Iggle Piggle” at around 3:14 on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6TBAedCxss )

      • dw says:

        Whoops: this wasn’t meant to be a reply to Amy!

      • Ed says:

        It’s only in the south of England that you get l-vocalisation, which doesn’t fit with RP’s status as an allegedly non-regional accent.

        I always find it a bit strange to read about changes in RP. I wonder how you can differentiate between RP changing and RP dying out? It seems to me that very few people have a Brian Sewell accent any more, and most can at least be divided into north or south of England.

  2. boynamedsue says:

    What northern English accents are you thinking of? I can’t think of any that have this feature, and I’m pretty familiar with all urban accents north of the Trent.

    • trawicks says:

      Just changed the wording there so it’s a bit more clear. I meant to say that Northern English accents generally don’t have l-vocalization.

    • Ed says:

      This is Midlands really, but it is (was?) a feature of the Stoke-on-Trent accent. There is a dialect phrase around the Potteries: “Cost kick a bow against a wow and head it til yer bost it?” In this phrase, “bow” denotes “ball” and “wow” denotes “wall”.

  3. dw says:

    One can analyze L-vocalization as a two-step process:

    1. From a “bright” unvelarized lateral [l] to a “dark” velarized lateral [ɫ]
    2. From a velarized lateral [ɫ] to a back, (usually) rounded vowel such as [ʊ]

    Accents such as Irish English have undergone neither development.

    Most North American accents, together with traditional RP, have undergone (1) but not (2).

    Cockney, Estuary English, AAVE etc. have undergone both (1) and (2).

    From a cross-linguistic perpsective it’s actually step (1) which is more remarkable. [ɫ] is a comparatively rare and unnatural phone, one of the harder sounds for non-native English speakers (and 3-year-olds) to learn, which thefefore tends to have a short half-life before it decays into vowels.

    You can see evidence of this in English spelling, for example in then word “half” itself: in early Middle English this was pronounced [half] as its spelling suggests. The [l] was then vocalized, giving late Middle English [hauf], and as a result of various further developments we have today’s L-less pronunciations of /hɑːf ~ hæf/ . The same thing can be seen in “walk” or “folk”.

    In the Romance languages, Brazilian Portuguese has undergone full L-vocalization (steps 1 and 2), while European Portuguese has undergone only step 1, and Spanish has undergone neither development.

    In answer to your question: “why do some accents do this while others don’t? “: one might as well ask the same about any accent feature, and part of the answer is doubtless sheer chance. However you are surely right that there is a potential connection with R-vocalization: there is a possibility that a given accent will have a generalized phontactic bias against sylllables of the form CVL (where L is a liquid), and that this may explain why L-vocalization may be more common in accents which also have R-vocalization.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a great analysis, DW. I agree that the velarized l is an odd duck. And of course, its vocalization extends to good number of languages besides English (notably the IPA symbol is similar to the symbol for /w/ in Polish, which is apt: dark-l was vocalized in that language, producing the modern /w/ phoneme, although there are still older dialects with [​ɫ]).

      I’m always fascinated that Irish English DOESN’T have velarized L. There is a velarized L in the Irish language (a phonemic one, to boot!) and, in a rather interesting turn of events, velarized R is common in Irish accents. Yet no dark L, except in more genteel Dublin/Supraregional accents.

      • dw says:

        I’m always fascinated that Irish English DOESN’T have velarized L. There is a velarized L in the Irish language (a phonemic one, to boot!) and, in a rather interesting turn of events, velarized R is common in Irish accents. Yet no dark L, except in more genteel Dublin/Supraregional accents.

        If Irish has a phonemic distinction between the /l/s, and English doesn’t, then Irish-speakers adopting English will have to decide which of their /l/s to use in English. They evidently chose the clear L as used in word-inital position as the paradigm.

        There is a parallel in Indian English: most Indian languages distinguish phonemically between unaspirated and aspirated stops: for example [kɑ], [kʰɑ] and [gɑ] are three different words in Hindi. Nevertheless, Indians always use the unaspirated phone for English stops: “cart” is always [kɑrt], never [kʰɑrt], even though most native English speakers use the aspirated form in word-initial position.

    • TT says:

      It’s interesting that Brazilian Portuguese also has some “R-vocalization” too. The r is often deleted at the end of infinitives, e.g., matar “to kill” is often pronounced [maˈta]. Even when it isn’t deleted altogether, it is often very weak, e.g., amar “to love” may be pronounced [aˈmah]. So there is probably a connection between L-vocalization and R-vocalization. Excellent comment btw.

    • TT says:

      Do you think the /l/ was originally always clear in English? Maybe the Irish always use a clear /l/ because that’s how it was when the English language came to Ireland. Another interesting thing to note is that the Irish “broad” (velarized) l is also dental, whereas the “slender” (palatized or “clear”) l is alveolar. So another possibility is that Irish ears were more sensitive to the place of articulation of the English /l/ (alveolar as opposed to dental) than whether it was “dark” or “clear”, so they used their “slender” alveolar l for English. Again, I’m no expert.

      • trawicks says:

        I’m a bit rusty in the historical linguistics department, but I get the sense l-velarization happened in stages rather than all at once. One thing that lends credence to your theory is that Caribbean English also appears to have clear-l in all contexts. So that would suggest that is was possibly more standard in English generally before the 18th Century.

      • Cclinton says:

        Apparently it’s kinda been around for a while actually. The Wikipedia page on Old English phonology claims that /l/ and /r/ WERE velarized, but not in the same places as ours, instead being velarized when another consonant came afterwards. And the page even includes a lengthy section about how these allophones affected the vowels before them (aka a sound change of /i e æ/>/iu eo æɑ/).
        So [liurˠniɑn] “to learn” comes from */lirnoːjan/ and [fæɑlˠlɑn] “to fall” comes from */fællan/.

        • Cclinton says:

          spelled liornian and feallan respectivily; I didn’t realize putting them in angle brackets would make them disappear.

        • dw says:

          /l/ and /r/ WERE velarized, but not in the same places as ours, instead being velarized when another consonant came afterwards.

          I (roughly RP in this respect) only have velarized /l/ when a vowel doesn’t follow. So “when another consonant came afterwards” is a major subset of that.

      • dw says:

        According to Dobson, the change from ME /a/ to /au/ before nonprevocalic /l/ (in words like salt, ball) is dated to around 1400. I would guess that velarization of /l/ must be at least another 100 years earlier than that.

        It seems that the cycle of velarization -> vocalization has happened a few times in the history of English.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    I don’t have an answer to your question, but I was raised in Pittsburgh, and I left for the west coast over 20 years ago. I find that I have lost the vowel pronunciations that are typical of Pittsburgh, but the L-vocalization still holds on for dear life (although it’s lost a bit of its grip). I often have to consciously force myself to stress the letter L in certain words when I’m talking in front a class of students, or when I’m reading something aloud.

    This makes me wonder whether some sounds are easier to lose from one’s native dialect than others (after one moves away). Maybe consonants are more stubborn than vowels when it comes to being jettisoned.???

  5. TT says:

    Original post:
    “But then, how would you explain Pittsburgh, a city renowned for its l-vocalization that is also strongly rhotic (r-ful)?”

    I’m no linguist, but my guess would be that it’s because Americans are much more aware of non-rhoticity than they are of L-vocalization. Non-rhoticity is also frowned upon in North America, whereas it isn’t at all in England and Wales.

    Here is a video I found about “Pittsburghese”. L-vocalization is one of the features that that the lady mentions. She also says she has L-vocalization is her own speech and she’s from central Pennsylvania.

    • TT says:

      *in her own speech

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        That bit on L-vocalization comes in at 17:20.
        She mentions that people from Pittsburgh who try not to vocalize their Ls still often do vocalize them. Sounds kind of like me.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s definitely a possibility. Here in the States, regionalisms tend to survive depending on their degree of stigmatization. L-vocalization isn’t a part of most American’s daily experience, so it’s less frowned upon.

  6. cgp says:

    Polish (and, I assume, similar tongues) has a letter (Ł or ł) that is pronounced this way.

  7. Let’s add Australian English to the list, because we tend to turn dark Ls into Ws too. Particularly in my part of the country (SA).

  8. AL says:

    This might be a whole different can of worms, but my parents, who are first generation Chinese Americans, pronounce trouble and people like “trubbow” and “peepow” (ow as in low, not cow).

    @dw: Regarding words like half… I’ve been told it is incorrect to pronounce the “l” in words like calm and palm, but my instinct is to always pronounce those l’s. Am I doing some kind of hyper-correction? (I do not pronounce the “l” in half, though.)

    • dw says:

      @AL:

      The “alm” words (calm, palm, psalm, almond, balm, alms) have traditionally been pronounced with silent /l/ (and the vowel of FAther) in the prestige dialects of both North America and Britain. There have probably always been people who pronounced the /l/, but until recently this was confined to rural dialects.

      In North America, there has been a recent trend to start pronouncing the /l/ again in these words. This is probably a result of spelling pronounciation. In Britian, the /l/ remains silent.

      • trawicks says:

        I’M one of those who pronounces the “l” in “calm,” I must admit! And (I know it’s ridiculous), I also add the “t” to “often,” thanks to a misguided speech coach in drama school.

        • dw says:

          “often” with /t/ is extremely common in Britain (more so than in the US, I would guess). While it probably originated as a spelling pronunciation, it’s now taken on a life of its own.

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