Really Larry: R and L

/r/ and /l/ are two of the more “difficult” consonants in English. Many non-native speakers struggle with these sounds, as they are not part of their first language. There are many variations of these sounds, so in this step we’ll explore these possibilities, and try some drills. Though they are made in areas of the mouth that are near one another, the action of the tongue on these sounds is fairly different.

First, let me explain that there are two significantly different ways in which /r/ in North American English is made. The first manner involves the action of the front of the tongue beginning to curl up and back, the start of a retroflexion or backward flip. The second manner bunches up the tongue at the back of the mouth. Similarly there are two /l/ sounds used in most forms of English around the world. The first manner involves the action of the front of the tongue, while the second manner raises the back of the tongue in the back of the mouth. So in these ways, /r/ and /l/ have a parallel pattern, though the way each one handles their two versions is quite different.

Let’s start by examining /l/. The two versions of /l/ exist in most speakers’ speech, though some accents of English, like Irish for instance, have only one. The first version arises when /l/ is at the beginning of a word or syllable when we get what is commonly called a “light L,” while the second /l/ appears at the end of a word or syllable, the so-called “dark L.” The main difference between the way these sounds are made has to do with the back of the tongue: it’s raised for the dark L, and not raised for the light L. In both light and dark L, the front of the tongue is doing a similar action: the tip of the tongue is behind the upper front teeth, while the sides of the tongue pull in, narrowing the body of the tongue. This lateral action gives /l/ its linguistic name, “lateral.”

To explore this narrowing action, start by making an /n/ sound, relaxing your jaw so that your tongue reaches up to seal off the oral cavity at the alveolar ridge. This upward reach is very similar to the action of /l/, except that it lacks the lateral narrowing. Feel the action of your tongue by going back and forth between /n/ and /l/, spending a few seconds on each sound: [nnnnnllllllnnnnnnllllllnnnnnnllllllll]. You should be able to feel that narrowing pretty dramatically.

The initial /l/ or “light L” is primarily a flap-like action, with the tongue moving up and down between that /l/ action and the open sound of a vowel. Try a series of “luh” syllables (IPA [lʌ]), tryinɡ hard to feel the action of the tonɡue slappinɡ down into the bottom of your mouth. Now, compare that to the action of the tongue on “nuh” (IPA [nʌ]). Now, alternate them: [nʌ lʌ nʌ lʌ nʌ lʌ nʌ lʌ nʌ lʌ]. Leaving your jaw dropped will help to make this action clearer, and help to isolate the tongue action. Finally, make a series of "luh"s, going up and down a five note scale, as classical singers have done for generations, isolating your tongue from your jaw.

Feeling the difference between the “light L” and the “dark L” can be hard for some of us because the action that makes the /l/ dark is a raising or arching of the back of the tongue near the soft palate, what linguists call “palatalization". This action is very similar to the action that makes the “ng” (IPA [ŋ]), where the back of the tongue rises and touches the soft palate; the palatalized /l/ doesn’t go so far as to touch the soft palate, and the soft palate stays raised so that the sound isn’t nasalized. The IPA symbol for “dark L” is an /l/ symbol with a palatalization symbol over top: [ɫ].

To try to feel the difference between “light” and “dark” we start with the word “all,” [ɑɫ] . Because we anticipate the “dark L,” the vowel is made further back than in other contexts, like in “odd” [ɑd]. You may be able to feel the this contrast if you go to say “odd” and then switch to “all” half way through, that is, make the [ɑ] and then go to the [ɫ] . Now try saying [lɑ ɑɫ] repeatedly, making sure to put a little pause between each repetition, so that you don’t hang onto the palatalization for the initial L. Can you feel the contrast? Now, consciouly keep the palatalization on the first sound, saying [ɫɑ ɑɫ] over and over — you should be able to feel the “dark” quality through the whole sound, affecting both the /l/s and the vowels.

Can you now make the “light L” in both the initial and final position? [lɑ ɑl] . You have to keep the vowels light, and just use the action of front of the tongue exclusively, not letting the back of tongue rise. To most English speaker, the second syllable won’t sound like the word “all,” unless you normally speak in that manner (e.g. if you are Irish.)

Now, let’s explore the /r/ sound. In English, there are two general types of /r/. Initial /r/, alone or in a consonant cluster like /br/, the /r/ is a true consonant. When /r/ is at the end of a syllable, after the vowel, the /r/ is what we call a "vowel /r/." English accents can be broken into two groups, ones where the vowel /r/ is spoken, known as rhotic accents, and ones where they are not, or non-rhotic accents. For the most part, accents in North America are generally rhotic (with a few exceptions, particularly in Deep South, and in parts of New England), while accents in Britain are non-rhotic (with many exceptions, of course: Cornwall, Ireland, etc.). The lexical sets in which vowel /r/ may appear include nurse, Letter, near, square, cure, force/north, start. For speakers of rhotic accents, the /r/ is not made much differently in either vowel /r/ or consonant /r/, though the energy of an intial or intervocalic /r/ is more forceful than a final /r/.

The /r/ sound is what linguists call an approximant, a sound where the tongue is near the roof of the mouth, but not so close as to create turbulence (so it isn’t a fricative sound). It’s as if the tongue bends the sound a little, and in so doing it modifies one of the formant energies of the vowel sound. We’ll look at the two primary ways that rhotic speakers make their /r/ sounds. The first is made with the tongue tip primarily, so I’ll call this version the apical /r/ (apical meaning that the sound is made with the front "apex" of the tongue.) In this version, we’ll start by putting our tongues in the /n/ position again, and then we’ll slowly drag our tongue tip back along the roof of the mouth, as if we were scraping peanut butter off the roof of our mouths. If we keep our tongues glued to the roof of the mouth, we’ll stay in a nasal position. For the sound to turn into an /r/ sound, we have to move the front edge of the tongue off the roof of our mouths, say a few millimetres (1/8"). If you merely pull your tongue off the alveolar ridge, as if you were just beginning to curl it back, you should get a very lightly /r/ coloured vowel sound. The IPA has two symbols for the vowel we’re dealing with here, a stressed one, and an unstressed one heard in words like nurse and better. When they are not r-coloured, the symbol is : [ɜ ə]; with r-colouring, those symbols have a little diacritic hooked on the upper right hand corner of the symbol: [ɝ ɚ]. It looks a little like a wing, so I call them "Flying Three" and "Flying Schwa." The non-rhotic sounds are essentially schwa [ə], though the stressed version, used in the nurse lexical set, /ɜ/ is sliɡhtly more open. If you need to clarify what schwa is, check out my post on it and its neighbour, [ʌ], heard in the strut lexical set.

The bunched /r/ is made with the body of the tongue balled up near the back of the mouth. The upper surface of the tongue is close to the roof of the mouth. Many speakers who bunch their /r/ sounds tend to round their lips. This makes the vocal tract longer, which modifies the sound of the /r/, so it’s more like the unbunched, apical /r/.

For speakers who need/want to have a strong sounding /r/, the bunched /r/ creates a very rich sound, but it is very much a back of the mouth kind of sound. Unfortunately, it is my experience that speakers who use a bunched /r/ find it more difficult to make a more subtle /r/, and variations with almost no /r/ colouring are a challenge. Also, when using a bunched /r/ for an intervocalic /r/, e.g. in words like Harry in an R.P. accent, it is harder to do a bunched /r/ as quickly and delicately as an apical /r/. Also, because the back of the tongue moves slowly, we often anticipate the bunched /r/, which colours the vowel that precedes it. This is appropriate for, say, a Texas accent, but not appropriate for others, such as GenAm or R.P. Bunched /r/ affects the preceding vowel the most in Centering Diphthongs, heard in the lexical sets near, square, cure, force/north, and start.

As I often do, I would argue that speakers who have one form of /r/ should train themselves to be able to make the alternate form of /r/. I believe that this makes accent acquisition much easier, and allows for greater accuracy when taking on an accent that features a different /r/ from your own. I believe that it generally easier to learn to do the bunched /r/ if you’re an apical /r/ speaker than it is for a bunched /r/ speaker to learn an apical /r/, based upon my experience of teaching both kinds of speaker since 1992. Your mileage may vary.

Bunched /r/

To learn to bunch your /r/, you need to make that /r/ sound as far back in your mouth as you can. I think the quickest way to learn this is to do a good Pirate ARRRR! sound. Most people know what this sounds like and can do it easily and feel how their tongue bunches up in the back. Once you’ve got that, try using that /r/ to initiate a word, such as red. The challenge, I find, for speakers new to the bunching is in doing it quickly enough. Try this little phrase, applying the bunched /r/ to the sound:

Red roses for Rhoda.

Now, we’ll try to apply this bunched /r/ to some vowels. We’ll start with a list of nurse words:

curb, turn, shirt, irk, firm, girl, twerp, verb, term, certain, heard, rehearsal, work, worst, scourge, attorney

Begin by saying the list of words as you would say them. Then, after saying a good Pirate ARRR, say each word in turn, lingering on the bunched /r/. Then, try making a more “normal” bunched /r/ (i.e. not quite so extreme) as you work your way through the list of words. As we’re easing off the intensity of the bunched /r/, do a variation where there is as little bunched /r/ sound as possible—that is, it still sounds like there is /r/ colouring, but it’s only slight. Finally, say these words with no bunching, just a central, non-rhotic /ɜ/ vowel (like you might hear in an R.P. accent.)

Now try applying that bunched /r/ sound to these words list of the lexical set words for the centering diphthongs. Some some or all of the following:

near: deer, here, interfere, cashier, fear, fierce, weird, beard, period, hero, dreary, weary

square: care, fair, bear, their, where, prayer, scarce, vary, Mary, various, area

cure*: poor, tour, allure, assure, demure, endure, lure, manure, mature, obscure, pure, bourgeois, gourmet

north/force: for, war, form, morn, important, torso, warn, aura, deplore, more, boar, floor, pork, court, Nora

start: star, part, arch, scarf, harsh, garb, large, carve, farm, barn, snarl, party, marvellous, heart, safari

* note that many speakers say all or some of these words as part of the north/force lex set, or as part of the nurse set.

Apical /r/

Now that we have the bunched /r/ out of the way, we can dig into the apical /r/. First, let’s make a heavily retroflexed /r/, where the tip of the tongue points back toward the uvula. Scrape the tongue along the roof of your mouth until the point is near where the hard palate meets the soft palate, which is about as far back as my tongue likes to go! Then peel the tongue off the roof of the mouth just slightly, so that there is about a millimetre of space between the roof of the mouth and the underside of your tongue (which is now up, because your tongue is flipped back.) Make a vowel sound here, and you should have a strongly /r/ coloured or rhotic vowel, [ɝ˞˞] (that’s a flying 3 with 3 rhotic hook diacritic marks). Try making this vowel with those nurse words from earlier:

curb, turn, shirt, irk, firm, girl, twerp, verb, term, certain, heard, rehearsal, work, worst, scourge, attorney

Now try them with the tongue not quite so far back, [ɝ˞], then just the "regular" amount, [ɝ], with the tonɡue tip curlinɡ back to just behind the alveolar ridɡe. Now try to do it with just a tiny amount of /r/, barely rhotic at all. Finally, do a non-rhotic [ɜ], as you might hear in R.P.

Next let’s try that apical /r/ on the centering diphthongs. Try varying your degree of rhoticity on the following word lists:

near: deer, here, interfere, cashier, fear, fierce, weird, beard, period, hero, dreary, weary

square: care, fair, bear, their, where, prayer, scarce, vary, Mary, various, area

cure: poor, tour, allure, assure, demure, endure, lure, manure, mature, obscure, pure, bourgeois, gourmet

north/force: for, war, form, morn, important, torso, warn, aura, deplore, more, boar, floor, pork, court, Nora

start: star, part, arch, scarf, harsh, garb, large, carve, farm, barn, snarl, party, marvellous, heart, safari

Really Larry Tongue Twister

So we’ve made it through the difference between bunched and apical /r/, and light and dark /l/. Now we’re on to a little tongue twister to tie the two sounds together. We’ll try a few variations, to try to compare and contrast dark /l/ with bunched /r/ and light /l/ with apical /r/. We’ll begin by going the backway round: using bunched /r/ and dark /l/ in all settings. Really Larry. Now try it with apical /r/ and a light /l/. Really Larry. Now try an apical /r/ with a dark /l/ on Really, and a light /l/ and a bunched /r/ on Larry. If you try to do a bunched /r/ and a light /l/ on Really with a dark /l/ and an apical /r/ on Larry, I think you’ll find that it’s extremely hard to do. Not impossible, but a real oral jungle gym to get around!


Next: Are You Speedy?

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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