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I am wondering about vowels with approximant sounds. I am talking about a variant of a r colored vowel. An r colored vowel is found in words like earth. But, I want to take this a step further. Is there a such thing as an l colored vowel, and is it possible? I assume it is.

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    “An r colored vowel is found in words like earth.” Is that only in rhotic accents?
    – gidds
    Jul 5, 2020 at 13:52
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    @gidds yes, though I guess it could come up in intervocalic R in non-rhotic accents.
    – wjandrea
    Jul 5, 2020 at 15:59
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    In my personal idiolect of Australian English I do not differentiate the "pet" and "pat" vowels before an "l". For me "smelly" and "tally" are perfect rhymes. I don't know if this qualifies as an "l coloured vowel" but it's probably related. Jul 14, 2020 at 5:33

3 Answers 3

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Short answer: yes, but it's not as interesting.

"R-colored vowels" are vowels that have are pronounced more like [ɝ], which is somewhat similar to [ɹ]. [ɝ] is a very interesting vowel, because it has something weird going on with its third formant—something that's not directly connected to height or frontness (the first two formants), or rounding (affects all formants). I'm not sure if phoneticists have a special name for this third-formant weirdness; it's often just called "R-coloring", because it specifically happens near [ɹ] in English.

So your question could be phrased as, "does any lateral have any properties that can spread to vowels near it?" And the answer to that is yes: [ɫ] (the velarized lateral) is somewhat close to a high back vowel, and can cause adjacent vowels to become high and/or back. Compare the pronunciation of English "small" against English "bad"; the vowel in "small" was pulled back by the [ɫ] in Early Modern English times.

However, these changes already have convenient names: "raising" and "backing". So there's not much reason to refer to them specifically as "L-coloring", the same way we talk about "R-coloring". Similarly, if you wanted, you could refer to vowel nasalization as "N-coloring"—but it already has a name, so there's no need to make a new one.

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    Velaring laterals is what got Polish Ł turned into a semivowel.
    – jlawler
    Jul 4, 2020 at 23:31
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    Also happens to dark 'l' in some London accents.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 5, 2020 at 0:48
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    What a shame, we could have had the terminology rhotic, nasal, lifted.
    – lirtosiast
    Jul 5, 2020 at 22:12
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    @lirtosiast Alternately, rhotic, lambdatic, nutic? The last pronounced /'nu.tɨk/ or something along those lines, I guess.
    – Draconis
    Jul 5, 2020 at 22:35
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It would be helpful for clarity to specify the articulatory gesture responsible for the "coloring". R-coloring (for me, at least) consists in dropping the blade of the tongue and retracting the tip of the tongue, making a little cup of the front part of the tongue. In this sense of "coloring", and taking the distinctive L-articularion to be the laterality of the tongue, I think the answer to your question is "No". You can't flavor a vowel by making your tongue lower on one side during its articulation. At least, I have never observed such a thing.

However, there is a way to color a vowel that makes it sound as though it is followed by an [l], even though there is no [l] actually there. In my Midwestern versions of words like "bulk" and "bulb", there is no [l]. There is just a lax [u], but with the tongue pulled back to approximate the uvula. Since syllable-offset [l] is uvularized, this suggests that an [l] is hanging around to cause the tongue retraction (as the conventional spelling with "l" indicates).

"Elk" and "milk" are similar, except the l-like quality is now manifested in an off-glide.

This modification of [l] in some dialects of English is popularly described as "velarization", but I think "uvularization" is more accurate, since velarization also involves raising the tongue body, as well as backing.

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I'm not a linguist but I teach English, so I'll give an answer that is useful for understanding from a learning standpoint.

"L" is just a tongue shape. Specifically, it's made by cupping the front of the tongue against the alveolar ridge (behind the teeth). All "l" (and "r") tongue shapes are made over a vowel sound's mouth shape. You can see which mouth shape you are using by holding the "l" or "r" sound for a particular word and then removing the "l" or "r". That is, moving the tongue down to a neutral position. The goal is to do so without changing the height of your lower jaw. You may need to put your hand under it to make sure it's not moving between the "l/r-colored" and "pure" versions of the vowel. (The back of the tongue can be considered part of the mouth shape, but this usually isn't a factor.)

Take the word "lull". The first "l" is "light", the second is "dark". If you remove the "l" from "light l" you get the vowel sound from "book". If you remove the "l" from "dark l" you get the vowel sound from "uhh". You can get an even "darker l" if you combine "l" with "aw", as some people do in "all" and "fall". You can get a "lighter l" by combining "l" with "ee", as some people do in "believe" and "elite" ("ee" is the only instance I found where the back of the tongue is a factor, as the jaw position is similar to that of "light l", or the vowel sound from "book").

So all "l" sounds can be thought of as some kind of "l-colored vowel". Maybe someday phoneticians will realize this too!

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