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Liquids /l/ and /r/ pronunciation

  /l/ and /r/ are called liquids since air flow is redirected and sent to different directions before exiting the lips. For /l/, imagine the tongue like a big rock in the middle of a little brook. The water stream is divided into two and moves around the rock. So is the airflow with /l/. For /r/, imagine the tongue like an odd-shaped rock that is under the water surface. The water will move around and over the rock. So is the airflow with /r/ around the tongue. 

Liquids are some of the hardest sounds to pronounce correctly for non-native speakers. One important reason for this is that liquids are actually pronounced differently before and after a vowel in a syllable, but non-native speakers are often unaware of this fact. For /l/, the two different sounds are often called the light L and dark L. For /r/, the two different sounds are called the prevocalic R and vocalic R. We examine these different sounds of the same phoneme briefly. 


English Pronunciation: the American Way

Lateral liquids

/l/ is the lateral liquid since the flow of air is redirected around the tongue and toward the sides of the mouth before exiting through the lips. That is, air flows around the sides of the tongue. For this to happen, the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge, and the sides of the tongue are dropped down so that the air can flow around the sides of the tongue. The opening left beside the tongue is wide enough that air flowing through does not become turbulent. 

English has one lateral liquid phoneme (/l/), but it actually has two different sounds: the alveolar lateral approximant /l/ (also called the light L) and the velarized alveolar lateral approximant /l/ (also called the dark L). For the light L, the tongue is brought near the alveolar ridge, forcing the air around the tongue toward the sides (lateral) of the mouth before being allowed to exit. The light L occurs in a syllable initial position; for example: like, lion, light. For the dark L, in addition to the tip of the tongue being brought near the alveolar ridge, the back of the tongue is raised toward the velum. That is, there is an additional arching of the tongue in the velar region. 

The dark L occurs in a syllable final position, like pool, world, or milk. When L is pronounced as a dark L, it becomes syllabic, acting as the sound carrier in a syllable. In other words, the dark L has a vowel sound (schwa) embedded in it. 

Retroflex liquids

/r/ is formed with the tip of the tongue curled back toward the roof of the mouth without touching any part of the mouth. The back of the tongue stays low. Since the tip of the tongue has to be curled back, /r/ is often called the retroflex liquid. Due to the tongue shape, the flow of air out of the body is altered. The /r/ sound can also be made by raising the back of the tongue. The center of the back of the tongue is lower and the air travels through this groove to create the sound. This way of making the /r/ sound is called the retracted R.

American English is rhotic. “Rhotic” means the pronunciation of the syllable final R. Since British English is non-rhotic, the syllable final R is dropped. R that comes before a vowel in a syllable (or a syllable initial r) is called prevocalic R, and R that comes after a vowel in a syllable (or a syllable final r) is called vocalic R. The prevocalic R and vocalic R have different sound quality. Just like the situation with the light L and the dark L, the prevocalic R is a pure consonant sound, but the vocalic R has a vowel sound (schwa) embedded in it. The vocalic R is the cause of the r-colored vowel, which we examined in the chapter on vowels. Due to the R dropping of the British English, British English has only prevocalic R.



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