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The Dreaded LL Sound

  • “I need some help with the devilish ‘LL’.”
  • “I can’t seem to figure out how to pronounce the double-L sound.”
  • “It sounds different on the casette tapes from how it is explained in the book.”

“How do you pronounce that strange LL sound?” must be one of the most frequently-asked questions in Welsh. It’s one of the famous eccentricities of the Welsh language, found no less than five times in that (in)famous invented placename, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch (which you can hear pronounced at http://www.north-wales.com/culture/ or http://www.sci.fi/~pob41/audio/llanfa7.wav).

It’s an unusual sound, found in only a few languages, including ones as different as Greenlandic Eskimo and (I think) Zulu. (Apparently Welsh speakers are a big hit in Zululand.) In the IPA phonetic alphabet it’s represented by a strange invented character called ‘belted l’.

So, how do you say it?

The usual advice about how to pronounce LL goes along the lines of “just put your tongue in the position for L and blow hard”. That’s not really very helpful in my opinion. The pronunciation of L varies greatly in different accents of English. Think of the difference between a southern Irish or Hebridean or South Walian L (very ‘light’), and one from Liverpool or Glasgow or New York, which is very ‘dark’ (tongue bunched up at the back of the throat). For many people, it simply won’t work.

The key is to raise the sides of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth until you get the necessary friction from the air hissing over the sides of the tongue past the teeth. Otherwise, to get the necessary friction, you have to blow with all your might.

That perhaps contributes to the idea that LL has to be pronounced with great force. Of course not! It takes no more effort than S or FF, and can be pronounced as softly as any other speech sound. In fact, I think it’s a myth that LL is a particularly difficult sound at all, despite its fearsome reputation. In fact it’s just a very unusual sound, and one which sounds pretty silly to some English-speakers. It’s all about familiarising yourself with the position of your tongue in your mouth as you speak – something you may not have thought much about before. Of course any unfamilar sound is difficult to explain in words, and on a low-fi recording it may not sound that different to S or FF.

LL is really just a combination of H and L. If you say an H followed immediately by an L, the the influence of the H will naturally tend to make the L more ‘hissy’, which is what you want. One way to get the feel of the sound is to say (or better still, whisper loudly) a word like clan or please and listen carefully to the sounds you’re making. Say the word slowly and emphatically, as if you were getting exasperated: “oh please! I said clan, not plan”. The L should sound something like LL: a sort of L and H all mixed up together.

Eh?

Here’s a quick explanation of how that works, if you want one. In English (and Welsh too), the sounds P, T and K, when they come at the beginning of a word, are pronounced with more force than B, D and G, being accompanied by a brief puff of breath. You can see this effect if you speak holding a flame (or just your hand) in front of your mouth. You’ll see (or feel) the puffs of breath you get when you say a word that begins with a P, T or K sound as opposed to the softer B, D or G. This extra breath is known in the trade as ‘aspiration’, and in casual speech it has the effect of ‘devoicing’ a voiced sound immediately following it. As you’re saying the P or K, your tongue is already in position for the L, and that puff of air blowing over it produces a momentary LL. If you listen carefully you should be able to hear that the L in please or clam is not quite the same L you would have said in lease or lamb. You get the effect more clearly if you say it in a loud whisper. The L sounds hissy, because it’s pronounced without ‘voice’, the buzzing or humming effect produced by your vocal cords when you say a ‘voiced’ sound like B, D, or G (as opposed to the voiceless P, T, or K). If you’re not familiar with the concept of voiced and unvoiced sounds, you can feel the difference by touching your Adam’s apple while you speak: you can feel a vibration when you speak a voiced sound but not when you whisper.

Anyway, that hissing L is the sound you’re after. Try and freeze your tongue in that position and get the feel of making that sound.

Above all: don’t panic! Honestly, none of this is nearly as hard as I may be making it sound.

Other ideas

Here’s a different technique I think makes some sense: put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH. As someone put it recently, “you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat”.

The fact is, when speaking naturally, we all pronounce sounds we’re not aware of making at all. The German ‘ch’ sound as in ich or dich is not present in English; or is it? Try saying the English word hue and you’ll find yourself pronouncing that soft German sound that’s somewhere between KH and SH.

In fact, as well as having the same initial pl- and cl- clusters you find in English, Welsh has a tl- combination, e.g. tlawd (‘poor’). You can get the same effect in the second syllable of lightly, assuming you avoid pronouncing it with a glottal stop (‘ligh'ly’) but instead explode the T noisily into the L. I find that a brief LL just naturally happens after the T – so Welsh speakers may be saying even more LLs than they themselves realise!

If you’ve got a good ear for the way people speak, you may find you recognise this LL sound and have heard it in English. In fact it’s a fairly common speech impediment: quite a few people who can’t say S normally, say LL instead. (British readers, listen out for Lord Rees-Mogg, ex-editor of the Times. I think Roy Hattersley does it sometimes too.)

Still no joy? Well, if you really can’t make the stupid noise at all, don’t despair. If the worst comes to the worst you can probably just say KL or THL and be understood. Probably.

To sum up. . .

  • raise the sides of your tongue to get a good hiss;
  • or, put your tongue in the position for L and say SH;
  • or, pronounce a vigorous hissing L in a word where it follows an initial voiceless plosive;
  • or, imitate that speech impediment, if you know the one I mean.
Best of luck!

more on Welsh pronunciation
© 1999–2002 Harry Campbell
Last updated: July 2002

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