Bowling or Boeing?

Bowling Pins

Photo: Stefan Grazer

I’ve spent the past few days in Pennsylvania. Accents in the Southern half (or so) of the state tend to feature l-vocalization, the process by which /l/ at the end of a word or syllable becomes a vowel (usually some type of ‘w,’ ‘oo,’ or ‘o’ sound). The feature is common in a number of accents, but it is particular salient in PA.

I spent the weekend at a wedding, which for the casual dialect observer is a great way to listen to the local dialect of a particular region.  And being in Western Pennsylvania, I was treated to one of America’s most unique dialects, with its rounded vowel in words like ‘lot,’ its falling intonation in questions, and the numerous idioms native to the region (‘gumband‘ for ‘rubber band’ and second-person plural ‘yinz‘ being perhaps the most famous).

One of the things I noticed the most, however, was that ‘l’ is often vocalized in this type of Pennsylvania English even when followed by a vowel. For example, the word bowl will often sound like ‘bow’ (boʊ) to an outside observer; the word bowling will likewise sound quite similar to the General American pronunciation of ‘Boeing’ (boʊ.ɪŋ)*.

This is not what one might expect. It would be easy to presume, rather, that ‘l-dropping’ in PA is similar to ‘r-dropping’ (non-rhoticity) in British English. That is, the ‘l’ in ‘bowl’ is dropped, but present in ‘bowling.’ Instead, Pennsylvanians sometimes treat ‘l’ in something of the same way older Southerners treat ‘r.’ Just as the ‘r’ in ‘hearing’ might be dropped in Alabama, so the ‘l’ in ‘Polish’ might be dropped in Pittsburgh.

This naturally left me curious about the other English accents that vocalize ‘l.’ Is l-vocalization between vowel as common in, say, London?

*I’m simplifying with the transcription here. L is vocalized in a number of different ways.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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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14 Responses to Bowling or Boeing?

  1. Mazzoir says:

    I have heard it, but only across word boundaries, as in “littw old man” and mainly in MLE speakers. Though MLE has a tendency to put a glottal stop before any word starting with a vowel, so vocalised l before a consonant would apply, I think.
    Thinking about my most “cockney” student, he does it, but if the following syllable is weak, eg “I feew incredibly good”
    I’ve lived in London for about six years now, and never observed it in the middle of a word before a vowel, but I’ll keep listening.
    I’ll also listen to my proper Weegie student too, as an inveterate L vocaliser.

  2. Tom says:

    I have relatives in Western PA, in the Pittsburgh area and north of that, and I’ve definitely heard the rounded vowels, as well as the falling intonation in questions (makes all questions sound almost like accusations, with an “I know what you’re REALLY up to” tinge). But I have to say that I’ve heard the l-vocalization much more in southern New Jersey (where I grew up) than in Western PA. Especially prominent with, say, Philly and dollar (phi-wee and dah-wer).

  3. Darren says:

    Is there a you tube video that illustrates this? I can’t imagine a North American accent sounding this way

    • Lewis says:

      Do you mean can’t imagine a North American accent having L-vocalization? Here’s a clip of comedian Dennis Miller who is from Pittsburgh. Listen to the way he says calling at 1:04, local at 1:14, wholeat 2:15 and (laughter) dial at 2:32*.

      An an unrelated note, you can hear other Pittsburgh (or maybe Western PA) features in this speech too. He has monophthongization of /aʊ/ in around [əˈraːnd] (2:44) and down [daːn] (3:48). I couldn’t tell if he was saying Don or Dawn at 2:45 (see: low back merger).

      *You may notice that the vowel in this word is also monophthongal giving the pronunciation [daw]. This was hard for me to understand at first.

      (Disclaimer: I am not a linguist. I’m only a very interested amateur.)

    • trawicks says:

      What Lewis said. I’d also add that Sharon Ash (co-author of The Atlas of North American English) has made a similar observation. For example, the pronunciation of ‘college’ as [kawɪʤ].

      • darren says:

        how typical is rounding vowels in American English? Is it prevalent in certain areas? I was under the impression that American English uses un-rounded vowels typically

  4. Mazzoir says:

    I’m working on a show with two east london boys, who have taken two years to get a hang on dark l’s. I caught one of them yesterday say “quaiw egg”, but neither was sure if they’d do it in a medial position in a word,eg filling, bowling, howling, feeling, etc. Will continue to monitor and report back.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    I grew up in Pittsburgh, but moved to the west coast over 20 years ago. I’ve basically lost the Pittsburgh accent except for the L-vocalization. “Little pal” becomes ‘littw pow”.

  6. Sheree says:

    Based on what I’ve read, “Phiwwy” (Philadelphia) is more famous for vocalizing l in words like bowling and dollar than “Pixburgh” (Pittsburgh). I’m not saying it doesn’t happen there too though.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      There’s an entire region that runs from eastern Ohio, through southwestern Pennsylvania, all thre way to Baltimore (with a bit of West Virginia, and Northern Maryland included).

      Philly is on the exterior of the L-vocalization. It’s too close to NYC and Northern suburban New Jersey that much gets lost.

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    I don’t think ‘Bowling (or ‘Dollar’) is a good example of L-vocalization. The best examples that come to mind are “Building = Buiwding” or “Shoulder = Show-der” or “bullshit -Buwwshit”.

    • Tom says:

      I can only speak from my experience in South Jersey / Eastern PA / Philly, but I’ve heard “dollar” l-vocalized quite a bit. Also, the “o” in it often becomes almost a short “a” sound.

  8. Ken Brown says:

    L-vocalisation of that sort is indeed common in London. Where I live, in South-East London, or local football team is called Millwall. When the fans are chanting the name the only consonant in it is the M.

    And the rest of the South-East of England as well. People from St Albans (about 30 miles north of London) call their home town “Snorbens” – non-rhotically of course, an American might spell that “Snawbinz”. And they supposedly eat “appo crumbo” rather than apple crumble.