Sound value(1) In English, the letter l represents a voiced alveolar lateral continuant, its articulation varying with accent and position: for example, in RP, a syllable-final velarization distinguishes the l in pill from that of syllable-initial lip. (2) A following l frequently gives a long value to the vowel letters a, i, o: a is like aw in saw (all, fall, halt, talk, altercation, falsify); i is like y as in sky (child, mild, whilst); o is like owe (cold, poll, bolt, control). However, pronunciation occasionally varies, as in such pairs as holy/holiday, Polish/polish.
Double L(1) In MIDDLE ENGLISH, final l in monosyllables after a single vowel letter was often single (al, ful, wel) but except in recent coinages like nil, pal it is now doubled (all, bull, cell, fill, gull, hall, mill, pull, will). In long-established COMPOUNDS, however, such forms commonly have one l: almost, also, although, until, welcome BrE wilful. Contrast standard all right and non-standard but common alright. (2) Single l is usual when two vowel letters precede (fail, haul, peel, coal, foul, tool) or when e follows (pale, while, pole, rule). (3) Doubled ll usually signals a preceding short vowel: compare the related vale/valley. The chief exceptions are monosyllables such as roll, the anomalous adverb wholly, tulle (derived from a French placename), and camellia. (4) On the other hand, single l occurs medially after both short and long vowels: compare balance/ballot, bilious/billet, chalice/challenge, dolour/dollar, felon/fellow, gelatine/jelly, military/million, palate/pallet, talent/tallow, tranquillity/virility, valid/valley, vilify/villain. (5) Discrepancies: tonsillitis with ll and colitis, poliomyelitis, diverticulitis with l; fusilier and fusillade; the pairs of alternates colander/cullender, postilion/postillion, scalawag/scallywag; belletristic, in which the ll derives from the three ls in the phrase belles letters. (6) The verb to parallel has the common inflected forms paralleled, paralleling and the less common and less accepted forms parallelled, parallelling. (7) An exotic ll occurs in SPANISH loans (llama, guerrilla), but is pronounced /l/, not as /j/ as in Spanish. (8) WELSH ll, as in the names Llandudno, Llangollen, Llewellyn, represents an alveolar lateral fricative, and is usually pronounced /l/ by non-Welsh-speakers.
Doubling by affixation(1) Inherited from LATIN, when certain prefixes are assimilated: ad- (allocation), con- (collocation), and in- (illustration, illegible). (2) Inherited from Greek when the prefix syn- is assimilated: syllable, syllogism. (3) When -less attaches to a word ending in l (soulless) and when -ly is added to adjectives ending in l: legally, coolly, beautifully. Base words ending in ll add y (fully) and those ending in vowel plus -le normally add -ly (palely, solely); wholly from whole is anomalous. Base words ending in consonant plus -le replace the e with y: able/ably, simple/simply. The adverb supply (in a supple manner) can be written supplely to avoid confusion with to supply, but there is only one form multiply for both adverb and verb. Adjectives ending in -ic, with the exception of public, and -ally: automatically, basically.
Syllabic LThe letter l can function syllabically, as in table, whose second syllable is pronounced /əl/, but in tabling the l loses its syllabic status and is the first consonant in a second full syllable. Many words have a separate vowel letter where schwa occurs in speech before final l, and there is no difference in pronunciation in: bridal/bridle, cubical/cubicle, gamble/gambol, idle/idol, mantel/mantle, metal/mettle (cognates), muscle/mussel (cognates), naval/navel. Such endings can constitute a spelling problem, as with principal and principle. Such surnames as Liddell, Revell, Waddell have either syllable stressed, according to owners' preference, leaving strangers who have only seen the name uncertain how to pronounce it. Certain adjectives derived from nouns with syllabic l contain a u that relates to the Latin origin of the words concerned: constable/constabular, muscle/muscular, scruple/scrupulous, table/tabular, triangle/triangular.
Epenthetic LThe letter l is epenthetic in chronicle, emerald, participle, principle, syllable. In fault, falcon, realm the l at one stage disappeared, but was restored. See EPENTHESIS.
L and RThe sounds /l/ and /r/ are phonetically similar. The l in belfry, marble, pilgrim (cognate with peregrine), plum (cognate with prune), and purple evolved from r. Glamour derives from grammar, and the spelling coronel was replaced by French colonel in the 17c, although pronunciation still reflects the r. See L-SOUNDS, R-SOUNDS.
Silent L(1) After a, before the consonant letters f/v, k, m: calf/calve, half/halve, chalk, stalk, talk, walk, almond, alms, balm, calm, palm, psalm, salmon. (2) After o before k, m: folk, yolk, holm, Holmes (contrast film, helm). (3) In could, should, would. (4) The vowel sound preceding lk (chalk, folk) is generally modified a or lengthened o, and in RP a is also lengthened before lf, lm, lv (half, palm, calve). Pronunciation may, however, be inconsistent, with l sometimes heard in almond, calm, holm, palm. (5) In some proper names, especially in England: always in Alnwick (‘Annick’), Lincoln (‘Linken’), generally in Holborn (‘Hohben’). In most of the preceding words, l was once pronounced, but in could it was inserted unhistorically early in the 16c by ANALOGY with etymological l in should, would, which was already silent. Samon was respelt salmon by reference to Latin salmo. Conversely, an l has disappeared from as, each, which, much (compare also, Scots ilk, whilk, muckle, and German als, welch).
British and American differences(1) Some disyllabic verbs ending in l and with second-syllable stress are usually written with l in BrE, ll in AmE: appal/appall, distil/distill, enrol/enroll, enthral/enthrall, instil/instill. Others have a single l in both varieties: control, compel, dispel, impel, repel, annul. Inflected and some derived forms have ll in both varieties: appalled, controlling, distillation, enrolling, installation (but enrolment, instalment chiefly in BrE). (2) Verbs ending in an unstressed vowel plus l (to equal, travel, pencil) normally double the l in inflected and derived forms in BrE (travelled, travelling, traveller), but not in AmE (traveled, traveling, traveler). BrE callisthenics, chilli, councillor, counsellor, fulfil, jewellery, libellous, marvellous, skilful, tranquillity, wilful, woollen correspond to AmE calisthenics, chili, councilor, counselor, fulfill, jewelry, libelous, marvelous, skillful, tranquility, willful, woolen.
L1 / el/ (also l) • n. (pl. Ls or L's ) 1. the twelfth letter of the alphabet. ∎ denoting the next after K in a set of items, categories, etc. 2. (L) a shape like that of a capital L: [in combination] a four-story L-shaped building. 3. the Roman numeral for 50. [ORIGIN: originally a symbol identified with the letter L, because of coincidence of form. In ancient Roman notation, L with a stroke above denoted 50,000.] L2 • abbr. ∎ (in tables of sports results) games lost. ∎ Chem. levorotatory: L-tryptophan. ∎ (L.) Lake, Loch, or Lough (chiefly on maps): L. Ontario. ∎ large (as a clothes size). ∎ Latin. ∎ Liberal. ∎ (L.) Linnaeus (as the source of names of animal and plant species): Swallowtail Butterfly Papilio machaon (L., 1758). ∎ lire. • symb. ∎ Chem. Avogadro's number. ∎ Physics inductance.
l • abbr. ∎ (giving position or direction) left: l to r: Gordon, Anthony, Jerry, and Mark. ∎ (chiefly in horse racing) length(s): distances 5 l, 3 l. ∎ (l.) (in textual references) line: l. 648. ∎ Chem. liquid. ∎ liter(s). • symb. (in mathematical formulas) length.
L is the Roman numeral for 50. Originally, this was a symbol identified with the letter L because of coincidence of form. In ancient Roman notation, L with a stroke above denoted 50,000.
L is also the sign for pounds sterling, from the initial letter of Latin librae ‘pounds’.