L Words in English

By Maeve Maddox

One topic on language certain to stir passions is the pronunciation of “l words” like salmon, almond, palm, and psalm.

Charles Elster in his Big Book of Beastly Pronunciations submits reluctantly and ungraciously to the fact that a great many educated English speakers pronounce the “l” in almond:

With so many accepted pronunciations of the word, common sense dictates that the prudent orthoepist, like the circumspect politician, refrain from issuing a dictum and instead defer to regional and personal preference–in common parlance, go with the flow.

orthoepist: An expert in orthoepy; a person who studies the pronunciation of words

Elster nevertheless maintains that his personal preference, is, well, preferable, pointing out that all of his sources list the AH-mund pronunciation first. He does not budge on alms, balm, calm, palm, psalm, qualm, and salmon, insisting that to pronounce the “l” in any of these words is “beastly.”

Both the OED and M-W list the silent “l” as the first pronunciation and the “l” pronunciation as a variant for the following words: alms, palm, psalm, and qualm.

OED gives only the silent “l” pronunciation for salmon, balm, and calm.

M-W lists both pronunciations for balm and calm, but only the silent “l” pronunciation for salmon.

Another “l” word, solder, “a fusible metallic alloy used for uniting metal surfaces or parts,” is pronounced SOD-er in American English, but SOLE-der in British English.

Most of these words had their problematic l’s inserted in the 15th and 16th centuries when scholars thought it important to make words resemble their Latin originals. Salmon, for example, entered English without the l: samoun. Its Latin original was salmon. The “l” was “restored,” but the pronunciation did not change.

Some other words with “restored l’s” that no one argues about are: fault, vault, cauldron, and soldier. As far as I’m aware, nobody tries to pronounce them without the “l.” (In standard English, that is. Caudron still exists in Scots dialect.)

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11 Responses to “L Words in English”

  • Tony Hearn

    ‘fault, vault, cauldron, and soldier. As far as I’m aware, nobody tries to pronounce them without the “l.” ‘ I would add ‘soldier’, which has a dialect form ‘soh-dier’ in England.

  • Linda Yezak

    I’ve often wondered where the “r” sound came from in colonel. I’m certain, in the original French, both Ls were pronounced as Ls–what happened?

  • Nancy Romness

    I heartily disagree with Charles Elster. Pronouncing the “l” in alms, balm, calm, palm, psalm, and qualm is not “beastly.” It makes the words distinguishable from similar-sounding words. For example, “balm” without the pronounced “l” sounds like “bomb.” We have enough homonyms already.
    I once was introduced to a man called “Pommer.” I later learned, of course, that his name was “Palmer.” Yes, leave the “l” in these words to “regional and personal preference.” The Palmer House in Chicago will always be the PaLmer House to me.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Did you know that “soldier” had a “j” sound in it in American English?
    It is SOL-jer. It is probably the same in Canada.

    Concerning the word “lieutenant”, I have read that in the Canadian Forces, the British pronunciation “lef-ten-ant” is considered to be practically a dirty word, and using it will get you in trouble. Canadians say “loo-ten-nant” just like Americans do.
    For the past several years, Canada has had a Royal Canadian Air Force again. I do not know about the resurrection of the Royal Canadian Navy or not, or the Canadian Army.
    D.A.W.

  • Sarah Arrow

    I come from East London, and our solution for these beastly Ls is to pronounce them like Rs. So balm sounds like barm, palm like parm and Plaistow (a nearby district) is Plar-stow… oh wait… that’s an I not an L.
    We also say Sol-Jer or Sol-Jah depending on region rather than soh-dier

  • Sarah

    In all my travels around the U.S., I’ve never once heard anyone pronounce alms, balm, calm, palm, psalm, qualm, or almond without pronouncing the L. Perhaps they might speak that way in Boston, but I’ve never been there. I’m shocked that the first pronunciation for each of these words is with a silent L. I guess my problem is that I grew up in the south. I don’t believe in prescriptivist philosophy. If many people in a region pronounce the L in these words, this shouldn’t be viewed as incorrect or beastly or low class. Different regions use different pronunciations. That makes life interesting.

  • venqax

    Yes! Go Orthoepy! I know it’s a writing site, but this is my favorite subject, I admit. The biggest point to be made is that there is such a thing as the study of pronunciation. And there are scholars who specialize in it. And it includes scholarly conclusions about what proper vs erroneous pronunciations are: right-way and wrong-way, just like any other rational pursuit. Just like grammar and spelling, pronunciation has standards regardless of where you are from. That’s why they call it “Standard”. A regionalism is just that. It’s jeans instead of a business suit. Don’t expect to be taken seriously in serious circles if you speak in regionalisms with non-standard pronunciations. It’s not a matter of right vs wrong as a moral issue, but definitely right vs wrong as an issue of appropriateness. Just like you’re expected to dress formally in a formal context, you should speak formally in a formal context. And that means not pronouncing Ls in calm, palm, and balm, just like it means not saying hyper-bowl or indiKment or marine corpse or horse doovers or calling someone Pene-LOHP. Undoubtedly there are “regions” where those are current, too.

    If many people in a region pronounce the L in these words, this shouldn’t be viewed as incorrect or beastly or low class.

    Yes they should if they are pronouncing them wrong in a setting where Standard American English is appropriate. Just as when they turn up at funeral in pajama pants and a tank top.

    Different regions use different pronunciations. That makes life interesting. Yes that’s why they call those “regionalisms” and NOT STANDARD. It is not English’s job to make your life interesting. It’s in charge of communication, we hope even of highly technical and arcane information like what the concept of *standard* means.

  • venqax

    Pronunciation in English is sometimes, complex but not nearly as chaotic as many think.

    Actually, this ALM and OLM situation follows the same general pattern as the Ls in ALK or OLK combinations where the L is there to modify the sound of a preceding vowel, not to be pronounced itself (at least in modern times). Walk, talk, folk, yolk, have the AW and OH sounds that would otherwise make them sound like wack, tack, fock and yock. Some people self-consciously pronounce the L in folk and even yolk. You don’t hear many even try it with the LKs. They seem to know that talk and talc are different words. Notice that like LK, it applies to As and Os before it. So the L IS pronounced in silk, milk, ilk and elk and it is likewise said in elm, helm film, realm (further evidence of the short E sound and silent A). L before F and V is often silent, too—half, calf, salve—but the history there is a bit different, I believe. Other common silent L modifiers are found in woulda, coulda, shoulda. That’s not to say that you can’t immediately cite shoulder and boulder, just that silent Ls are not that exotic in English.

  • Deborah HH

    Psalms—specific scripture poems composed with music—were formerly played or performed with a psaltery, an ancient stringed instrument. The word psaltery gave us the word psalm. Maybe a Hebrew scholar can help us out, but pronouncing the “L” sound in psalm seems logical.

  • venqax

    @Deborah HH: It’s not Hebrew. It is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word *mizmor* which is completely unrelated to *psalm*. The word psalm entered English from the Old French *psaume* or *saume* with the L – and sometimes the P– already gone and so not pronounced. It’s one of those words MM mentions above where English spelling “reformers” later reinserted the L from the “classical” Latin *psalmus* and Greek *psalmos* (both meaning “ a song sung to a harp or stringed instrument”), but the L-less pronunciation was already set. The letter was silent when it was gratuitously added back:

    Most of these words had their problematic l’s inserted in the 15th and 16th centuries when scholars thought it important to make words resemble their Latin originals.

    Psalm does not come from psaltery. Psaltery does come from L psalterium after Gr plalterion both meaning “stringed instrument”. Psalmos (psalm) and psalterion (psaltery) came from the same word, *psallein*, but psalm didn’t come from psaltery anymore than the reverse. They’re like brothers, not father and son.

    The word *psalter* came later in Old English to specifically mean “the songs sung by David”, just BTW.

  • Deborah HH

    Oh. Thanks 🙂

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