Learn English – L in the middle of a word: dark l or light l


I find it easy to pronounce words like full (/fʊl/, dark l) and light (/laɪt/, light l), but when the letter l appears in the middle of a word, things become tricky. I can hear different pronunciations from some native speakers, e.g.

  1. delete /dɪˈliːt/. Almost all pronounce it as a light l, i.e. /dɪ-ˈliːt/.
  2. delegate /ˈdelɪgeɪt/. Some pronounce it as /ˈdel-lɪgeɪt/ (as a dark l and a light l), and some pronounce it just as /ˈde-lɪgeɪt/ (light l only).
  3. silly /ˈsɪli/. Like the "delegate" case, both /ˈsɪl-li/ and /ˈsɪ-li/ can be heard.

My question is: is there any pronunciation rule for "l in the middle of a word"? Thank you.

PS: I have found some explanations after googling:

  1. Rachel's English: L in the Middle of a Word. This video suggests that there's only a light l sound by taking "elongate" for example.

  2. Wikipedia: Velarization. Seems it hasn't clearly described the case for "l in the middle of a word".

    A common example of a velarized consonant is the velarized alveolar lateral approximant (or dark L). In some accents of English, such as Received Pronunciation, the phoneme /l/ has "dark" and "light" allophones: the "dark", velarized allophone appears in syllable coda position (e.g. in full), while the "light", non-velarized allophone appears in syllable onset position (e.g. in lawn). Other accents of English, such as Scottish English, Australian English, and General American English, have "dark L" in all positions, while Hiberno-English has "clear L" in all positions.

Best Answer

In Southern Standard British English (RP), /l/ is always dark unless followed be a vowel (sound). When followed by a vowel it's always clear. In the middle of the words delete delegate and silly, the /l/ is followed by a vowel and will therefore be clear.

In a word like alright where /l/ is followed by a consonant, it will be dark. We use clear /l/ in the same environments where we would pronounce an /r/. We use dark /l/ where r would be silent.

Note that word boundaries do not affect this rule.

  • call Ben
  • call Ana

  • or Ben

  • for Anna

The /l/ will be dark in the Ben sentence above. It will be clear in the Anna one where it is prevocalic (appears before a vowel). In the same way, there is no [r] in the Ben sentence, but there is in the Anna one.

Descriptions which say that clear /l/ occurs in syllable onsets and dark /l/ occurs in the coda at the end of the syllable, assume a theory of liaison. This means that the /l/ in call Anna has moved from the end of the call syllable, to form the onset of the following one in Anna.