The sound of <l>

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Tue May 29 20:01:43 UTC 2001

For Doug Bigham:

        The pronunciation of /l/ in "palm", "psalm", "calm" and many other
words to me, as in the idiosyncratic pronunciation of "Polk", is a
spelling-pronunciation, much like the pronunciation of /t/ in "often" (but
note never in "soften"), a belated product of the uninformed school dictum
that "words should be pronounced as they are spelled". In some cases, as
in "often", this catches on to the point of restoring long-lost
pronunciations (proving that if the language were not written, this could
never happen).
        Although the British (and perhaps some New Englanders) distinguish
the vowels in "balm" and "bomb", it is only the vowel, not the /l/, which
distinguishes, the /l/ having been long ago vocalized, perhaps leaving a
length distinction in some varieties.
        Being a native of Southern Illinois, Doug should have heard the
folk-etymological form "pan" for the "palm" of the hand, illustrating the
antiquity of the disappearance of the loss. Note that the vocalization may
not occur if the following consonant is not tautosyllabic, as in the name
Palmer, though it may happen even there. Proper names often have their own
        Jim Sled noted long ago that in his archaic Atlanta speech, as in
the speech of many Southerners, the phonetic quality of the /l/ differs
radically if it is followed by a high vowel, contrasting the velarized [l]
of "Bill" with the 'light' [l] (so well described by Dennis) in "Billy".
(See his important, if oft-ignored, article in Language "Breaking, Umlaut,
and the Southern Drawl".) Dennis -- does that extend to your area?
        The next time you hear the weatherperson pronounce "calm" with an
/l/, take note if he/she also pronounces it in "talk", "walk", or "folk".
Spelling-pronunciations are rarely consistent, but usually only target
certain words that have somehow come to the speaker's attention at some
point, probably usually in elementary school when such influences are
are at their peak, often due to some teacher misguided by the quotation


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