What do the L sound and Star Wars have in common?

They both have light and dark sides.

Yup, you heard right – There are two “L” sounds in English, and they’re termed the “light L” and the “dark L”.

For the light L (denoted phonetically as /l/), the tip of the tongue elevates and touches the alveolar ridge (the junction between the upper front teeth and the palate), and then the tongue releases or flicks to make the /l/ sound. The light L usually occurs before a vowel, for instance, “lady,” “melon,” and “fly.”

The dark L (denoted phonetically as /ɫ/), in contrast, occurs after a vowel or the end of a word. For example, “stale,” “mile,” and “little.” It is produced in two stages. First, the back of the tongue rises, as if we introduce an extra vowel, /ə/. This movement is then followed quickly by the tip of the tongue reaching for the alveolar ridge. However, unlike in the light L, the tongue tip may or not touch the alveolar ridge, and if it does touch, it is fleeting and does not release (meaning, the tongue tip sound does not flick)

If you say the word “real” slowly and pay close attention, you should be able to feel the back of your tongue rising to produce the extra /ə/ vowel before the tongue tip rises.

Another interesting fact – the degree of darkness in the dark L varies depending on the dialect. For some dialects, the “L” is so dark that the tongue tip doesn’t move at all, and the “L” essentially becomes a “w” sound. With a few dialectal exceptions, the dark L in the British accent is much darker than the American accent. The word “ball,” for instance, tends to be produced as “ba-w” in the British accent and “ba-ul” in the American accent.

I love this gradient of darkness so much that I coined the term “50 shades of L” 😏

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