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Phonology of Finnish /l/

Posted: 2019-05-24, 0:18
by Woods
Some languages have, as far as my ear can tell, one /l/-sound (such as English, where it’s always ‘dark,’ or French and Spanish, where it’s always sharp), and others such as my native Bulgarian have two – a sharp one before /ɛ/ and /i/ sounds and a ‘dark’ one (which has practically turned into a /w/) before /a/, /ə/, /o/ and /u/, or at the end of the syllable. I think the situation is similar with Dutch where it’s a sharp one before a vowel and ‘dark’/dull/whatever you want to call after it.

Now what about Finnish? I used to think that all /l/’s were dark, but I realise it’s not the case. I’m definitely hearing two distinct types of /l/ depending on the word, however I haven’t been able to see enough consistency and work out the rules. Is it like it’s a dark /l/ before /a/, /o/, /u/ and /i/ and sharp one before /ä/, /ö/, /y/ and /e/? That’s my best guess – don’t tell me I’m right :)

And then I guess it’ll always be dark if it comes after the vowel?

Someone who’s a specialist, are there any IPA-symbols to render the distinction? A quick Google search leads to the following webpages, where the exact same /l/-symbol is used both in English and in French, while the two languages have totally different /l/-sounds:

I have thought of using /ł/ (Polish letter) to render the English /l/-sound, however I think I haven't seen this in any dictionary or grammar and it's only my invention.

Re: Phonology of Finnish /l/

Posted: 2019-05-24, 7:30
by Naava
Woods wrote:Some languages have, as far as my ear can tell, one /l/-sound (such as English, where it’s always ‘dark,’

Not quite true; it depends on the accent you have in mind. General American English has some degree of velarisation in all of their L sounds, whereas Hiberno-English uses a light L most of the time, and RP has both light and dark L.

Now what about Finnish? I used to think that all /l/’s were dark, but I realise it’s not the case.

Officially, it's light in every position. However, bear in mind that the distinction between a light L and a dark L is not black and white but more like a continuum, so some languages have less velarised /l/ than others even if both languages are said to have "a dark L". The same goes with a light L: it's not identical in every language. For example, this page says that the Finnish /l/ is darker than French and German /l/, but lighter than syllable final /l/ in English or /l/ in Russian. That's why saying "these two languages have a light L" doesn't mean their L sounds would be identical.

But then again, Finnish /l/ is not very stable, if I can say so. There's dialectal and personal variation. (For example, listen to Juha Mieto who has a Southern Ostrobothnian /l/, especially at 0:47 in "nautiskellen".) According to the same page I quoted earlier, Tampere and Savonian dialects have a "strongly palatalised L" and young speakers in South Finland have a "darker L than Finns normally have".

What it's worth, I tried to pronounce L in different positions to see if anything changes. My results:

- it's pretty much the same no matter whether I say ela, ele, eli, elo, elu, ely, elä, elö or ella, elle, elli etc.
- it's the same with other vowels, too (ala, ela, ila ; ala, ale, ali)
- and with L+consonant (alka, alke, alki, alko...)

- however, -ili- and -ilki- have a slightly palatalised L*
- before /t/, it's always dental (FYI: /n/ becomes dental before /t/ as well)

- double L (ella, elle, elli etc) can be pronounced with a darker L**
- the exact place of articulation of L can be changed and it still sounds fine to me: it can be somewhere between dental and alveolar, which I think is what that page calls medioalvelar - but I can also make it more alveolar and it still sounds the same to me **

* This makes sense, though, because the place of pronunciation for /i/ is closer to the palatalised L than to the "normal" L. I would suppose there is also similar small variation in pronunciation with other phonemes + L depending on the environment in which /l/ appears, but that's something that's hard to hear or feel without any equipment.
** Note that I have a Southern Ostrobothnian background so this might be the result of the dialect

But it's also good to remember that as much as my perception is altered by my native dialect, so is yours altered by your native Bulgarian. You are used to hearing a light L with front vowels and a dark L with back vowels, and that seems to be exactly what you're trying to do with a Finnish L as well. (Ä, Ö, Y, and E are all front vowels, A, O, and U are back vowels - the only one you got "wrong" is /i/ that you grouped with back vowels, but this might be because what I've seen, Slavic languages tend to palatalise their consonants strongly before /i/. Finnish L is not as strongly palatalised, which might make it sound more like a dark L to you.)

I'm not saying your analysis is wrong per se. What I mean is that you are more accustomed to hearing a difference between two types of L sounds. Because Finnish doesn't have a systematic distinction between these, there's lots of variation in pronunciation, and that might be what you're hearing. It doesn't bother the native speakers because we don't need to be conscious of it, but it might be confusing to you if what you read about Finnish phonology and what you actually hear don't match.

Also, have you heard of Lauren/Yanny -clip? Our senses are not 100% reliable. We tend to hear what we expect to hear, which can be one more explanation for why you hear two different L sounds in Finnish.

Someone who’s a specialist, are there any IPA-symbols to render the distinction?

Yes. Light L is /l/, palatalised L is /lʲ/, and dark L is /ɫ/.