Free Sounds Guidebook

How the Dark L Influences Vowels


(Video Transcript)


Hi, I’m Julie with San Diego Voice and Accent, and in this video you’ll learn how the Dark L  consonant can influence the way that vowels are pronounced.


Foot vs. full

Listen to these two words. Do they sound like they contain the same vowel?





I’ll say them again.





Now look at the IPA transcription. You’ll notice that indeed, they do use the same vowel, the UH as in book vowel. But that’s not how it sounds. Listen one more time.






So, why do the vowels sound different? Let’s look at the surrounding sounds to find out. The word foot ends with the T consonant, which is a voiceless stop consonant. And the word full ends with the L consonant, and this L is the Dark L because it comes after a vowel in the same syllable. 


The final consonants influence the vowel pronunciation, and here’s how. The voiceless T consonant causes the UH vowel to be shorter because of the voicing. Vowels before voiceless consonants are usually shorter than vowels that come before voiced consonants.




The Dark L and coarticulation

But the even bigger impact comes from the Dark L. First, the Dark L is voiced, so that means the UH vowel will be a little longer in duration. And second, the Dark L pulls the vowel farther back into the mouth because of coarticulation. Coarticulation can happen any time that two sounds come next to each other - one sound will influence the other -  and sometimes the effects are very noticeable. In the case of the word full, the mouth anticipates that a Dark L is coming, so the tongue changes position early, during the vowel, to prepare for the Dark L.


This also makes it sound like another vowel is inserted between the UH and the Dark L - a quick, uh, sound.


Listen to the two words again, and I’ll try to exaggerate the vowel so you can hear the difference.

Foot. Foooooot. Uh, Uh, foot.

Full, fuuuuuhhhll, uhl, uhl, uhl, full.


Foot and full: Up close and in slow motion

Let’s look at foot and full up close and in slow motion.


On the left is the word foot, and on the right is the word full. Both words begin with the F consonant and then transition to the UH vowel, but notice how the lips are slightly more relaxed in the word full. You can’t see the tongue placement clearly in these photos, but the tongue placement of the UH vowel is also different in both words. In full, the tongue is slightly lower, retracted, and in more of a narrow shape during the production of the vowel in preparation for the Dark L. Then foot ends on the T consonant, and full ends on the Dark L. 


Dark L + vowels and the IPA

You may hear slight differences in the pronunciation of many English vowels when they come before the Dark L at the end of a word or syllable, but these differences won’t be transcribed in the IPA transcription of that word. And to make things even more complicated, some native speakers will use a different vowel than what is transcribed in most dictionaries, depending on where they are from. 


Trust your ears. Listen to as many native speakers as you can, and imitate what you hear. Your imitation skills may be more helpful than the IPA when learning how to pronounce words that contain a vowel plus dark L combination. 

Practice: Dark L + vowels

Let’s practice a few minimal pairs that contain a vowel plus Dark L combination. I’ll say each word pair three times, once at my normal pace and twice slowly. Say the words with me. 


UH /ʊ/ before Dark L




IH /ɪ/ before Dark L





EE /i/ before Dark L



AI /aɪ/ before Dark L




OO /u/ before Dark L





I hope this video helped you to understand how the Dark L can influence the pronunciation of the surrounding vowels. Thanks for watching! And I'd love to hear from you - contact me to learn how we can work together to perfect your American English pronunciation!


Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent

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