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There are two types of l-vocalization:
- A labiovelar approximant, velar approximant, or back vowel: [ɫ] > [w] or [ɰ] > [u] or [ɯ]
- A front vowel or palatal approximant: [l] > [j] > [i]
West Germanic languages
Examples of L-vocalization can be found in many West Germanic languages, including English, Scots, Dutch, and some German dialects.
Early Modern English
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L-vocalization has occurred, since Early Modern English, in certain -al- and -ol- sequences before coronal or velar consonants, or at the end of a word or morpheme. In those sequences, /al/ became /awl/ and diphthonged to /ɑul/, while /ɔl/ became /ɔwl/ and diphthonged to /ɔul/.
At the end of a word or morpheme, it produced all, ball, call, control, droll, extol, fall, gall, hall, knoll, mall, pall, poll, roll, scroll, small, squall, stall, stroll, swollen, tall, thrall, toll, troll and wall. The word shall did not follow this trend, and remains /ˈʃæl/ today.
Before coronal consonants, it produced Alderney, alter, bald, balderdash, bold, cold, false, falter, fold, gold, halt, hold, malt, molten, mould/mold, old, palsy, salt, shoulder (earlier sholder), smolder, told, wald, Walter and wold (in the sense of "tract of land"). As with shall, the word shalt did not follow the trend and remains /ˈʃælt/ today.
Before /k/, it produced balk, caulk/calk, chalk, Dundalk, falcon, folk, Polk, stalk, talk, walk and yolk.
Words like fault and vault did not undergo L-vocalization but rather L-restoration. They had previously been L-vocalized independently in Old French and lacked the /l/ in Middle English but had it restored by Early Modern English. The word falcon existed simultaneously as homonyms fauco(u)n and falcon in Middle English. The word moult/molt never originally had /l/ to begin with and instead derived from Middle English mout and related etymologically to mutate; the /l/ joined the word intrusively.
L-vocalization established a pattern that would influence the spelling pronunciations of some relatively more recent loanwords like Balt, Malta, polder, waltz and Yalta. It also influenced English spelling reform efforts, explaining the American English mold and molt as opposed to the traditional mould and moult.
However, certain words of more recent origin or coining do not exhibit the change and retain short vowels, including Al, alcohol, bal, Cal, calcium, doll, gal, Hal, mal-, Moll, pal, Poll, Sal, talc, and Val.
While in most circumstances L-vocalization stopped there, it continued in -alk and -olk words, with the /l/ disappearing entirely in most accents (with the notable exception of Hiberno-English). The change caused /ɑulk/ to become /ɑuk/, and /ɔulk/ to become /ɔuk/. Even outside Ireland, some of these words have more than one pronunciation that retains the /l/ sound, especially in American English where spelling pronunciations caused partial or full reversal of L-vocalization in a handful of cases:
- caulk/calk can be /ˈkɔːlk/ or /ˈkɔːk/.
- falcon can be /ˈfælkən/, /ˈfɔːlkən/ or /ˈfɔːkən/.
- yolk can be /ˈjoʊlk/ or /ˈjoʊk/; yoke as /ˈjoʊk/ is only conditionally homophonous.
The Great Vowel Shift changed L-vocalized diphthongs to their present pronunciations, with /ɑu/ becoming the monophthong /ɔː/, and /ɔu/ raising to /ou/.
The loss of /l/ in words spelt with -alf, -alm, -alve and -olm did not involve L-vocalization in the same sense, but rather the elision of the consonant and usually the compensatory lengthening of the vowel.
More extensive L-vocalization is a notable feature of certain dialects of English, including Cockney, Estuary English, New York English, New Zealand English, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia English and Australian English, in which an /l/ sound occurring at the end of a word (but usually not when the next word begins with a vowel and is pronounced without a pause) or before a consonant is pronounced as some sort of close back vocoid: [w], [o] or [ʊ]. The resulting sound may not always be rounded. The precise phonetic quality varies. It can be heard occasionally in the dialect of the English East Midlands, where words ending in -old can be pronounced /oʊd/. KM Petyt (1985) noted this feature in the traditional dialect of West Yorkshire but said it has died out. However, in recent decades, l-vocalization has been spreading outwards from London and the south east; John C. Wells argued that it is probable that it will become the standard pronunciation in England over the next one hundred years, which Petyt criticised in a book review.
In Cockney, Estuary English, New Zealand English and Australian English, l-vocalization can be accompanied by phonemic mergers of vowels before the vocalized /l/, so that real, reel and rill, which are distinct in most dialects of English, are homophones as [ɹɪw].
Graham Shorrocks noted extensive L-vocalisation in the dialect of Bolton, Greater Manchester and commented, "many, perhaps, associate such a quality more with Southern dialects, than with Lancashire/Greater Manchester."
In the accent of Bristol, syllabic /l/ can be vocalized to /o/, resulting in pronunciations like /ˈbɒto/ (for bottle). By hypercorrection, however, some words originally ending in /o/ were given an /l/: the original name of Bristol was Bristow, but this has been altered by hypercorrection to Bristol. In Plymouth l vocalisation is also found but without turning into the Bristol l afterwards.
African-American English dialects may have L-vocalization as well. However, in these dialects, it may be omitted altogether: fool becomes [fuː]. Some English speakers from San Francisco, particularly those of Asian ancestry, also vocalize or omit /l/.
In colloquial varieties of modern standard German, including the northern Missingsch, there is a moderate tendency to vocalise coda /l/ into /ɪ̯/, especially in casual speech. This is most commonly found before /ç/ in words like welche ("which") or solche ("such"), which merges with Seuche ("disease"). To a lesser degree, the same may also occur before other dorsal and labial consonants.
A similar but far more regular development exists in many dialects of Austro-Bavarian, including Munich and Vienna. Here, etymological /l/ in the coda is vocalised into i or y in all cases. For example, Standard German viel ("much") corresponds to vui in Bavarian and vü in Viennese.
In most varieties of the Bernese dialect of Swiss German, historical /l/ in coda position has become [w] and historical /lː/ (only occurring intervocalically) has become [wː], whereas intervocalic /l/ persists. The absence of vocalization was one of the distinctive features of the now-uncommon upper-class variety. It is still missing from dialects spoken in the Bernese Highlands and, historically, in the Schwarzenburg area. For example, the Bernese German name of the city of Biel is pronounced [ˈb̥iə̯w].
In early 15th century Middle Scots /al/ (except, usually, intervocalically and before /d/), /ol/ and often /ul/ changed to /au/, /ou/ and /uː/. For example, all changed to aw, colt to cowt, ful to fou (full) and the rare exception hald to haud (hold).
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In early Middle Dutch, /ul/, /ol/ and /al/ merged and vocalised to /ou/ before a dental consonant (/d/ or /t/):
- oud "old" < ald
- hout "wood" < holt
- Wouter, a name < Walter
The combination /yl/, which was derived from /ol/ or /ul/ through umlaut, was not affected by the change, which resulted in alternations that still survive in modern Dutch:
- goud "gold", but gulden "golden"
- schout "sheriff", but schuld "guilt, debt"
- zouden "would" < zolden, past tense of zullen "to will, shall"
Ablaut variations of the same root also caused alternations, with some forms preserving the /l/ and others losing it:
- houden "to hold", past tense hield
- wouden "wanted" < wolden, past tense of willen "to want"
Analogy has caused it to be restored in some cases, however:
- wilden reformed next to older wouden
- gelden "to apply", past tense golden, earlier gouden
Many speakers of the northern accents of Dutch realize /l/ in the syllable coda as a strongly pharyngealized vowel [ɤ̯ˤ].
In pre-Modern French, [l] vocalized to [u] in certain positions:
- between a vowel and a consonant, as in Vulgar Latin caldu(m) "warm, hot" > Old French chaud /tʃaut/
- after a vowel at the end of a word, as in Vulgar Latin bellu(m) > Old French bel > Old French beau /be̯au̯/ "beautiful" (masculine singular; compare the feminine belle /bɛlə/, in which the l occurred between vowels and did not vocalize)
By another sound change, diphthongs resulting from L-vocalization were simplified to monophthongs:
- Modern French chaud [ʃo]
- Modern French beau [bo] (belle [bɛl])
In early Italian, /l/ vocalized between a preceding consonant and a following vowel to /j/: Latin florem > Italian fiore, Latin clavem > Italian chiave.
Neapolitan shows a pattern similar to French, as [l] is vocalized, especially after [a]. For example, vulgar Latin altu > àutə; alter > àutə; calza > cauzétta (with diminutive suffix). In many areas the vocalized [l] has evolved further into a syllabic [v], thus àvətə, cavəzetta.
West Iberian languages such as Spanish and Portuguese had similar changes to those of French, but they were less common: Latin alter became autro and later otro (Spanish) or outro (Portuguese), while caldus remained caldo, and there were also some less regular shifts, like vultur to buitre (Spanish) or abutre (Portuguese).
In Portuguese, historical [ɫ] (/l/ in the syllable coda) has become [u̯ ~ ʊ̯] for most Brazilian dialects, and it is common in rural communities of Alto Minho and Madeira. For those dialects, the words mau (adjective, "bad") and mal (adverb, "poorly", "badly") are homophones and both pronounced as [ˈmaw]~[ˈmaʊ], while standard European Portuguese prescribes [ˈmaɫ]. The pair is distinguished only by the antonyms (bom [ˈbõ]~[ˈbõw] and bem [ˈbẽ]~[ˈbẽj]).
South Slavic languages
In Standard Serbo-Croatian, historical /l/ in coda position has become /o/ and is now so spelled at all times in Serbian and most often in Croatian. For example, the native name of Belgrade is Beograd (Croatia also has a town of Biograd). However, in some final positions and in nouns only, Croatian keeps archaic spellings (and hyperprecise pronunciation) stol, vol, sol vs. Serbian sto, vo, so (meaning "table", "ox" and "salt" respectively). The archaism of orthography does not apply to adjectives (topao) or past participles of verbs (stigao), which are the same in Standard Croatian as in Standard Serbian.
In Slovene, historical coda /l/ is still spelled as l but almost always pronounced as [w].
In Bulgarian, young people often pronounce the L of the standard language as [w], especially in an informal context. For example, pronunciations that could be transcribed as [mawko] occur instead of standard [malko] or [maɫko] ('a little').
Polish and Sorbian
In Polish and Sorbian languages, almost all historical /ɫ/ have become /w/ even in word-initial and inter-vocalic positions. For example, mały "small" in both Polish and Sorbian is currently pronounced as [ˈmawɨ] (compare Russian малый [ˈmalɨj]). The [w] pronunciation, called wałczenie in Polish, dates back to the 16th century, first appearing among the lower classes. It was considered an uncultured accent until the mid-20th century, when the stigma gradually began to fade. As of the 21st century, [ɫ] can still be used by some speakers of eastern Polish dialects, especially in Belarus and Lithuania, as well as in Polish-Czech and Polish-Slovak contact dialects in southern Poland.
In Ukrainian, at the end of a closed syllable, historical /ɫ/ has become [w] (now commonly analyzed as coda allophone of /ʋ/). For example, the Ukrainian word for "wolf" is вовк [ʋɔwk] as opposed to Russian вoлк [voɫk].
Proto-Uralic *l was vocalized to *j in several positions in the Proto-Samoyed language. Several modern Uralic languages also exhibit l-vocalization:
- In Hungarian, former palatal lateral *ʎ (still written by a separate grapheme ly) has become a semivowel /j/.
- Most Zyrian dialects of Komi vocalize syllable-final /l/ in various ways, which may result in [v], [u], or vowel length.
- Veps also vocalizes original syllable-final *l to /u/.
- Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
- Jesperson, Otto (1954). A Modern English Grammar vol. 1. London: Bradford & Dickens. pp. 289–297.
- KM Petyt, Dialect & Accent in Industrial West Yorkshire, John Benjamins Publishing Company, page 219
- Asher, R.E., Simpson, J.M.Y. (1993). The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Pergamon. p. 4043. ISBN 978-0080359434
- Kortmann, Bernd et al. (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Mouton de Gruyter. p. 196. ISBN 978-3110175325.
- Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge University Press. p. 259. ISBN 978-0521297196
- Petyt, KM (1982). "Reviews: JC Wells: Accents of English". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge. 12 (2): 104–112. doi:10.1017/S0025100300002516.
- Rogers, Henry (2000), The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 120–121, ISBN 978-0-582-38182-7
- Shorrocks, Graham (1999). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Pt. 2: Morphology and syntax. Bamberger Beiträge zur englischen Sprachwissenschaft; Bd. 42. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p. 255. ISBN 3-631-34661-1. (based on the author's thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Sheffield, 1981)
- Harper, Douglas. "Bristol". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- L Hall-Lew and R L Starr, Beyond the 2nd generation: English use among Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area, English Today: The International Review of the English Language, vol. 26, issue 3, pp. 12-19. 
- Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2003), The Phonetics of English and Dutch, Fifth Revised Edition, pp. 197 and 287, ISBN 9004103406
- Leksykon terminów i pojęć dialektologicznych : Wałczenie
- Transcribing Estuary English, by J. C. Wells - discusses the phonetics of l-vocalization in Estuary English and Cockney.