142: The syllabic l

Don't add a vowel sound!


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 142nd episode.

Our last podcast was about the t sound allophones and part of that show was about the importance of being able to tell the difference between a syllabic l and a non-syllabic l.

A syllabic consonant is a sound that is typically considered a consonant, but can sometimes do something that only vowel sounds are supposed to be able to do--create a syllable. We have three syllabic consonants in English: the schwa+r sound, the l sound, and the n sound. Today I'm just going to talk about the syllabic l.

Understanding syllabic consonants is important because it allows non-native English speakers to not over-pronounce words by adding unnecessary sounds. If you want to sound like a highly fluent speaker of English, learning where to not put sounds is just as important as knowing where to keep them.

A syllabic l does not sound different than a regular l, it's just a classification to help us understand syllables and realize that some syllables don't include a vowel sound. I hope that makes sense.

Let's start with a few words that contain an easy to identify syllabic l: words where it's spelled le, as in the words trouble, single, and simple. I'm going to say those words again, but I'm also going to say just the final two consonant sounds so you can hear that there is no vowel added between them. Those words were trouble (bl), single (gl), and simple (pl). Try saying them with me:




So the idea is that the syllable with the syllabic l sound does not also include a vowel sound. Compare the word simple to simply. The final syllable of the word simply is ly, an l sound and then a long e sound. Since the final syllable of simply includes a vowel sound, the l sound is not considered syllabic.

Once you learn to notice syllabic l's, you can find them in other spelling patterns as well. The word local, spelled l-o-c-a-l, has a syllabic l. So does final f-i-n-a-l, and special, s-p-e-c-i-a-l.

The syllabic l exists in more than just 2-syllable words. Listen to the final syllable of the words animal, difficult, and hospital. Those final syllables were ml, klt, and tl: animal, difficult, and hospital.

While the syllabic l does occur more often on an unstressed final syllable of a word, it can also occur in earlier syllables. Examples are the words especially and potentially, e-spec-iall-y, po-tent-iall-y.

I'm not saying you'll never hear native speakers add a vowel sound into these syllables, only that is it more common to use the syllabic consonant. In all of the words I used as examples in this podcast, and in all of the words in Pronuncian's exercise on this topic, I verified that the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary shows a small, raised schwa symbol (that's an upside-down letter e) before the l sound; that's their way of showing syllabic consonants. That style of transcription means that the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary does not recommend adding the vowel sound, but that it is optional. Regular dictionaries that we use for definitions of words seldom give this kind of detail. So, if you want to know things like this, you need a good pronunciation dictionary, and you need to read the introduction to the dictionary to see how the symbols are specifically used.

As I mentioned a bit earlier, there is an exercise on Pronuncian for more syllabic l practice. Exercises are only available to Pronuncian subscribers, which you can find information about by going to www.pronuncian.com/join. I'll link to the Pronuncian's free l sound lesson from this show's transcripts page, which can be found by clicking Episode 142 on www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

Let's practice. Repeat these words after me, using a syllabic l:




Of course, you can practice hearing the details of English by listening to an audio book. You can get a free audio book by signing up for a free 14-day trial of Audible.com. Use our special web address: www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian as a way to help support this show and to get your free audio book to keep. If you cancel your subscription with Audible before 14 days, you are charged nothing, but you get to keep your free book.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.