Hi, I’m Julie with San Diego Voice and Accent, and this video will be your go-to guide on how to pronounce the Dark L sound in American English!
The Light L and the Dark L
American English has two types of L sounds. One type of L sound is when the L consonant comes at the beginning of a word or syllable, or when it is part of a consonant cluster. Examples of this L sound are:
This L has a few different names. I call it the Light L, but you might also hear it called the clear L or the neutral L - these terms refer to the same L sound.
The other type of L sound is when the L consonant comes after a vowel in the same syllable or at the end of a word. Examples of this L are:
This L also has a couple of different names. I call it the Dark L, but you might also hear it called the Velarized L - both of these terms refer to the same L sound.
This video is going to focus on the second type of L sound - the Dark L. This is one of the hardest sounds for my accent clients to pronounce because they were most likely not taught this Dark L sound when they were learning English. The Dark L isn’t usually in any language textbooks, and you very rarely see it in the IPA transcription of a word. So it’s usually a new sound for most people. And as with any new sound, it takes a lot of practice in order to master the pronunciation.
But in this video, I’m going to explain how to make the Dark L sound, step by step, and show you videos of the Dark L sound that are up close and in slow motion so you can really see the tongue movement, and you’ll have practice words at the end of the video. I’d recommend that you watch this video every day for at least a week, take notes on the pronunciation tips, and then imitate the practice words at least 20 times for each word, every day. It might seem impossible at first, but you can get better at this sound, but it will take that much practice to do it!
How to pronounce the dark L
So let’s get to it! The Dark L is in the word pool.
I want you to focus on how the Dark L sounds. Notice how it has a different sound to it - uhl, uhl, uhl - it sounds dark, pulled back, like it’s trapped in the throat.
This is why the Dark L is called the Dark L. The sound is made in the back of the mouth or throat, and it has a dark or muted quality to it.
The Dark L has a completely different quality than the Light L - the other L sound in American English. I’m going to say the word pool with a Dark L, which is the correct pronunciation, and then with a Light L, which is the incorrect pronunciation. Listen to the difference in the quality of the L sounds.
Pool (dark L)
Pool (Light L)
Pool (dark L)
Pool (Light L)
Pool (dark L)
Pool (Light L)
Even if you don’t know how to make the dark L sound, you can most likely hear the difference in the overall quality of the dark L versus the light L.
Pool (dark L)
Pool (Light L)
So how do you make the Dark L sound? And what gives it this dark, muted quality? I’m going to show you a drawing to help explain the mouth position.
A drawing of the dark L
Here is a drawing of the face and head from the side view (courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VocalTract.svg). I’ll point out a few important landmarks. Here is the nose and the nasal cavity. Here are the lips, the teeth, and the roof of the mouth, starting with the alveolar ridge, then the hard palate, then soft palate.
This is the tongue. This is the throat, which leads down to the airway, and the lungs are down below. The vocal cords are right about here.
The first part of the dark L: Tongue pulls back
There are two parts to the Dark L sound. The first part is the most important part of the sound. When you pronounce the Dark L sound, the back of the tongue pulls back towards the throat, and the space between the back of the tongue and the throat gets smaller. This tension is very important to the dark L - it’s what gives the dark L its dark, muted quality. When you pull the tongue back and down, you are restricting the airflow just a little bit, which makes the dark L resonate at that point of restriction. This means the dark L will sound like it is made in the back of the mouth or throat - this is the point of tension or restriction, and this makes it very different from the light L.
This is the first part of the Dark L - the dark, muted sound.
The second part of the dark L: Tongue tip up
Now I’ll explain the second part of the Dark L sound. In a previous video, I said the tip of the tongue can either be up at the alveolar ridge, or down, behind the lower front teeth, when you make the Dark L. Let me clarify these instructions. To make the dark L sound, the first thing you should do is pull the back of the tongue towards the throat and add tension to the tongue. And usually, the tongue tip is down when this happens. So at the beginning of the Dark L sound, the tongue tip is usually down, behind the lower front teeth.
However, sometimes native speakers add a second part to the Dark L. They bring the tongue tip up, either to the alveolar ridge or to the back of the upper front teeth. This part doesn’t always happen - some native speakers only use the first part of the Dark L. But some native speakers use both parts - first, the tongue pulls back for the dark sound, then the tip comes up to finish the sound, which pulls the sound forward.
This sounds like:
Essentially, you say a dark L and then a light L.
Pool (with tongue tip up)
Some native speakers do this often, and some native speakers don’t use the second part at all.
This second tongue placement isn’t necessary for the dark L - you don’t need to do it! You want to keep the focus of the sound in the back of the mouth and throat, so if you bring the tongue tip up, you risk bringing the sound up with it, and sometimes, this will prevent you from making the dark portion altogether - you’ll end up turning the dark L into a fully Light L.
When native speakers use both parts of the dark L, they will pronounce part 1, the dark portion, 100% of the time. And then if they say part 2 of the dark L, the lighter portion, it doesn’t affect the dark sound because it comes after the dark sound.
But when non-native speakers first learn the dark L, it can be confusing to use both parts - both the dark portion and then the light portion - and what usually happens is a non-native speaker won’t pronounce the first part of the dark L - they’ll only pronounce the second part, which means they pronounce a light L. So I recommend using just the first part of the dark L and keeping the tongue tip down so that you can focus on making a good, dark sound with the back of the tongue.
And you may be able to see some movement in my throat when I say the dark L
That movement is coming from my tongue as it pulls back and down. Put your hand on your throat and see if you can feel the muscles tensing and moving as you say the dark L.
Ultrasound images of the dark L
Next, I’m going to show you an ultrasound of a native speaker pronouncing the Dark L (courtesy of https://seeingspeech.ac.uk/r-and-l-in-english/). This is really cool because you can see the tongue movement as it’s happening. The image, however, isn’t very clear, but I’ll show you what to look for.
You’ll see two versions of the Dark L - one in which the speaker only uses the first part - the dark portion of the Dark L. Then you’ll see a video in which the speaker uses both parts of the Dark L - the dark portion, and then they’ll bring the tongue tip up for the light ending.
Here’s the first video, and let me point out some landmarks.
This is the tongue. This is the front of the mouth, and this is the back of the mouth. The green line represents the alveolar ridge and the hard palate. You can also see a recording of the person’s mouth as they talk. The speaker is a man from San Jose, which is a large city in California. He’s going to say the word level, which begins with a Light L and has a Dark L at the end. He only pronounces the first part of the Dark L. Watch how his tongue pulls back, and his tongue tip stays down as he says the Dark L.
I’ll play it again in slow motion and without the sound so you can pay attention to the tongue movement.
Here’s another video of the same word level, and the speaker does the same thing - they only pronounce the first part of the Dark L. This speaker is a woman from Georgia, which is a state in the southern part of the US.
I’ll play it again in slow motion and without sound.
Here’s the second version of the Dark L - the dark portion plus the light version at the end.
It’s the same word, level, but the speaker is now from North Carolina, which is a state on the south eastern coast of the US. She will pronounce both parts of the Dark L.
I’ll play it again in slow motion and without sound.
Linking with the dark L
Now I just told you that the tongue tip should stay down when making the dark L, but of course, there are exceptions! You may want to use both parts of the dark L - the dark, muted sound that is made with the back of the tongue, and then the lighter part of the sound that is made with the tongue tip coming up - when you are linking the dark L to a vowel or another L sound.
This happens in the word village /ˈvɪl.ɪdʒ/. Notice how the L in the first syllable is the dark L because it comes after a vowel in the same syllable. The second syllable is idge, and it begins with the IH vowel. When you link the first syllable, vil, to the next syllable, idge, the tongue tip usually comes up to help connect the syllables smoothly.
This also happens across word boundaries, like in the phrase middle of town. The final L in middle is a dark L because it comes at the end of a word. The next word is of, and that begins with the UH vowel. So the tongue tip usually comes up, either to the alveolar ridge or to the back of the upper front teeth, to link the words together smoothly.
Middle of town
Middle of town
Middle of town
Native speakers don’t always bring their tongue tip up when linking - it just depends on personal preference and how fast they are speaking. But, it can and does occur, and if you want to bring your tongue tip up when you link the dark L to a vowel, that’s fine - just remember to always pronounce the first part of the dark L - the dark, muted portion that is made with the back of the tongue.
The Dark L and lip placement
I want to talk about the lip placement for the dark L. Watch my lips as I say the dark L:
My lips are neutral. They don’t participate in the dark L sound. I can even retract my lips into a smile to pull them out of the way as I say the dark L, and I will still say a good dark L sound.
Many of my accent clients will cheat when they say the dark L sound, and instead of making it with the back of their tongue, they’ll use their lips to help make the sound. They’ll round their lips, so it sounds like:
Uhl (rounded lips)
But notice how that makes the Dark L sound like the OH vowel, and it brings the focus of the sound up to the lips. But that’s not where dark L is made. The dark L is made at the back of the mouth and throat, and it’s made with a low tongue that is pulled back. The back of the tongue does all of the work.
Use a mirror to make sure you aren’t rounding your lips when you say the dark L. It’s a hard habit to break, but focus on the tongue and relax the lips.
How the Dark L influences vowels
Now I want to talk about how the dark L may influence the pronunciation of the surrounding vowels. I discussed this in a previous video, but I wanted to give you additional information about it in this video.
Sounds rarely occur in isolation. When I say the word hello, I’m saying 4 sounds that occur together, in one word. I don’t say
I say hello, with each sound blending into the next. Whenever any sounds occur next to each other, a process called coarticulation can occur. This is when one sound influences the way another is pronounced, and this happens all of the time in spoken language. You can’t avoid it!
The dark L is unique in that it can have a very strong influence on the way that the surrounding vowels are pronounced. You can find a lot of information about this topic if you do a quick internet search. Some of the pronunciation changes are unique to only certain parts of the United States. There is great variability among native speakers with this particular sound combination, so you will definitely hear native speakers pronounce vowel + Dark L combinations differently depending on where they are from. I want to share with you how dark L has influenced my vowel pronunciation.
The Dark L in the General American English accent
I’m from California, and some scholars say that my accent is the General American English accent. For me, there are 4 vowels that I feel are especially influenced by the dark L. Meaning, when these vowels come before the dark L sound, I don’t pronounce the pure vowel. The vowel sounds...darker...pulled farther back in the mouth...or, the vowel sounds like another vowel completely.
Dark L and AH /ɑ/ vowel
Let’s start with the AH /ɑ/ as in father vowel. When this vowel comes before a dark L, like in the word hall /hɑl/, the quality of the AH vowel is different. It sounds like it is pulled farther back into the mouth, and the lips round slightly.
Listen to the difference between father and hall.
AH (like in father)
AH (like in hall)
Dark L and UH /ʊ/ vowel
Now the UH /ʊ/ as in put vowel. When this vowel comes before the dark L, like in the word pull /pʊl/, the quality of the UH vowel is very different. It also sounds like it is pulled farther back into the mouth, and the lips are more rounded.
Listen to the difference:
Dark L in lull, bull, and bowl: Vowel merger
Now for the really interesting part. I want to talk about three vowels. The UH /ʌ/ as in butter vowel, the UH /ʊ/ as in put vowel, and the OH /oʊ/ as in no diphthong.
For me, when these vowels come before a dark L, they sometimes all sound the same. They have all merged into the UH /ʊ/ as in put vowel.
This means that the words lull, bull, and bowl all rhyme. They use the same vowel, the UH as in put vowel, and they use the dark L version of that vowel.
If you look in a dictionary, you’ll see this for their IPA transcriptions:
Lull is supposed to use the UH as in butter vowel. This would make it sound like luhl, but that’s now how I pronounce it. I say lull, using the UH /ʊ/ as in put vowel, and I use the dark L version.
Bull has the UH as in put vowel, but we already know that the dark L causes this vowel to sound like it is pulled farther back into the mouth. So it’s not buhll, it’s bull.
And bowl has the OH as in no diphthong, but I don’t pronounce a diphthong here. I pronounce just the UH part, so this word sounds like bull, not bow-el.
Dark L: Up close and in slow motion
Now, let’s take a closer look at the dark L sound. I’ll show you a video of the dark L in the words pool, village, and the phrase middle of town.
First, you’ll see the word pool in slow motion. Now let’s focus on the OO and Dark L transition. Here’s the OO vowel. And here’s the Dark L. This is the first part of the Dark L - the “dark” part that’s made with the back of the tongue, and notice how my tongue tip is down at this point. But you’ll see the very tip of my tongue comes up slightly to finish the sound. It doesn’t come all the way to the alveolar ridge, but it does come up slightly.
Next, you’ll see the word village in slow motion. Now let’s focus on the IH and Dark L transition in the first syllable. Here’s the IH vowel, and here’s the Dark L. This is the first part of the Dark L - the part that is made with the back of the tongue - and you’ll notice my tongue pulls back just slightly to make it. Now let’s focus on the transition between the Dark L and the IH vowel that begins the second syllable. Here you’ll see the second part of the Dark L sound - my tongue tip comes up and touches the back of my upper front teeth to finish the Dark L and link the two syllables together. And here is the IH vowel at the beginning of the second syllable.
Now, you’ll see the phrase middle of town in slow motion. Let’s focus on the transition between the flap and the Dark L in the word middle. My tongue tip is up at the alveolar ridge for the flap, then the back of my tongue tenses and pulls back slightly for the Dark L. My tongue tip stays up, however, because the next sound is a vowel, and the Dark L is going to link to the UH vowel here, using the tongue tip. And lastly, notice how my lips are already in motion to make the V sound in of, while I’m still pronouncing the UH vowel.
Practice: Dark L in words
Now let’s practice the dark L. I’ll say words that have a different vowel plus dark L combination, and I’ll say each word three times. Then you’ll have a chance to repeat.
I hope this video helped you to master the dark L sound in American English. 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!