28 November 2011


In a recent Phonetics Blog, John Wells transcribed wholly as /həʊlli/, and the double ('geminate') /l/ surprised me. But checking in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary confirms that he indeed uses a geminate /l/ in the middle of this word, and futhermore it contrasts with holy which is shown in the dictionary as /həʊli/ with a single /l/.

I suspect this contrast between single and geminate medial consonants in English mostly occurs with /l/, possibly because the geminate /l/ is likely to be a dark /l/ (phonetically shown as [ɫ]). For example, the following words involving a medial /t/ are all perfect rhymes, suggesting that there is no contrast between single and geminate /t/:
  • city, pity (single morpheme, spelled with one 't')
  • ditty, kitty (single morpheme, spelled with two 't's)
  • gritty, witty (two morphemes, spelled with two 't's)
One comment under John Wells's blog suggests that bookcase ~ book-ace may offer a contrast between a geminate and single /k/, but at the very least this is less common than the wholly ~ holy contrast.

It is interesting that Malay also has this potential contrast for a medial /l/. In Malay, /l/ is normally clear, including in intervocalic positions such as salah ('wrong') and malah ('but'); however, in Allah it is a dark /l/, reflecting the importance of the word in religious contexts and the fact that it is an Arabic word. Now, malah ~ Allah is not quite a minimal pair, but it is quite close.