In linguistics, l-vocalization is a process by which an sound is replaced by a vowel or semivowel sound. This happens most often to .

L-vocalization in English

L-vocalization is a notable feature of certain dialects of English, including Cockney and Estuary English, in which an /l/ sound occurring at the end of a word or before a consonant is replaced with the semivowel , also lesserly transcribed as the vowels and , resulting in pronunciations such as [mɪwk], for milk, and [ˈmɪdw], for middle.

Especially in Cockney, l-vocalization can be accompanied by phonemic mergers of vowels before the vocalized /l/. For example, real, reel and rill, which are distinct in Received Pronunciation, are homophones in Cockney as [ɹɪw].

In the accent of Bristol, syllabic /l/ vocalized to /o/, resulting in pronunciations like /ˈbɒto/ (for bottle). By hypercorrection, however, some words originally ending in /o/ had this sound replaced by syllabic /l/: the original name of the town was Bristow, but this has been altered by hypercorrection to Bristol.

In the United States, the dark L in Pittsburgh and African-American Vernacular English dialects may change to an o, w. In African American Vernacular, it may be omitted altogether (i.e. fool becomes [fu], cereal becomes [ˈsiɹio]).

L-vocalization in other languages

  • In early 15th century Middle Scots /al/ (except intervocalically and before /d/), /ol/ and often /ul/ changed to /au/, /ou/ and /uː/. For example all changed to aw, hald to haud (hold), colt to cowt, ful to fou (full).
  • In Dutch, the combinations old ('old') and holt ('wood') changed to oud and hout during the Middle Ages.
  • In Brazilian Portuguese, /l/ in the syllable coda position becomes the semivowel [u̯]. For example, the words mau (bad) and mal (badly) are both pronounced [mau̯].
  • In Polish and Sorbian languages, all historical /ɫ/ have become /w/, even in word-initial and inter-vocalic position. For example, in Polish ładny ("pretty, nice") is pronounced /ˈwadnɨ/, słowo ("word") is /ˈswɔvɔ/, and "small" in both Polish and Sorbian is mały, pronounced /ˈmawɨ/ (cf. Russian малый [ˈmaɫɨj] ). The /w/ pronunciation dates back to the 16th century, first appearing among peasants. It was considered an uncultured accent until the mid-20th century when this stigma gradually began to fade. As of the early 2000s, /ɫ/ can still be used by some speakers of eastern Polish dialects, especially in Belarus and Lithuania.
  • In Ukrainian, at the end of a closed syllable, historical /ɫ/ has become /w/. For example, the Ukrainian word for "wolf" is вовк /ʋowk/, cf. Russian вoлк [voɫk].
  • In Serbo-Croatian, a historical /l/ in coda position has become /o/ and is now so spelled. For example, the Serbo-Croatian name of Belgrade is Beograd.
  • In Austro-Bavarian, the etymological /l/ is vocalised, only after front vowels, into i or y, e.g. vui corresponding with High German viel ("much").
  • In Bernese German, a historical /l/ in coda position has become [w], a historical /lː/ (only occurring intervocalically) has become /wː/, whereas intervocalic /l/ persists. The absence of vocalization was one of the distinctive features of the upper class variety which is not much spoken anymore. For example, the German name of the city of Biel is pronounced [ˈb̥iə̯w].
  • In Bulgarian, young people often pronounce the [ɫ] of the standard language as [w] or [o], especially in an informal context. For example, pronunciations which could be transcribed as [maʊ̯ko] or [mao̯ko] occurs instead of standard [maɫko] ("a little"). Unlike the historical sound changes listed above, this is an example of a synchronic variation between speakers that might not result in a sound change in the long run.
  • In early French, /l/ vocalized in many positions between a preceding vowel and a following consonant, for example caldus (Vulgar Latin for "warm, hot") became chaud (in the Middle Ages with a diphthong similar to /au/, today simplified to /o:/). Another example: The masculine form of the word "new" in Vulgar Latin was novellus. This was simplified to nouvells in Old French, so that /l/ stood next to a consonant and vocalized to /w/. Later, the end-s disappeared resulting in /nou'vew/, which resembles the today written form nouveau. In the feminine form, /l/ stood between two vowels (novella), so the /l/ did not turn into a /w/ and is hearable until today (Modern French: nouvelle /nu'vel/).
  • In early Italian, /l/ sometimes vocalized to /j/, e.g. Latin flos > Italian fiore, Latin clavis > Italian chiave.


  • Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.

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