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Overview of Afrikaans vowels

In this section an overview of the Afrikaans vowels, short and long, as well as the diphthongs, is provided. In the descriptions of the individual vowel segments detailed charts are provided.

The diagrams presented here (Figures 2 and 3), of the Standard Afrikaans vowels, have been constructed on the basis of real acoustic measurements made of productions in a phonetic context /s_s/, read in a word list style. The speaker, a prominent radio personality, is generally acknowledged to be a prototypical speaker of Standard Afrikaans. In a recent survey she was nominated as the most 'appropriate' speaker of Standard Afrikaans. Other participants (N = 344) in this survey were from all walks of life, male and female and of different ages and ethnicity groups.

In Figures 4 and 5 the same kind of measurements are provided for a coloured variety of Afrikaans, as spoken in Genadendal, Western Cape. This is due to its important standing in the historical evolution of Afrikaans. This variety is represented here, and in all other descriptions of the individual vowels elsewhere. Of course, there are many other varieties of coloured Afrikaans as well. The above-mentioned information is based on recordings of a number of young female speakers of Genadendal.


Vowels are customarily represented in a chart as in Figure 1, that is a slightly adapted version of the IPA vowel chart; the Afrikaans short vowels are placed in the eight main cardinal positions, including /ə/, /œ/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ while /i/, /y/ and /u/ are also classified by most phoneticians and phonologists (e.g. Le Roux and Pienaar (1927), Wissing (2017), Wissing (2014), Coetzee (1982), Combrink and De Stadler (1987) and De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) as short. The long vowels of Afrikaans are /e/, /ø/ and /o/. The true diphthongs of Afrikaans are /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/. Vowels are, furthermore, classified according to their articulation, specifically with reference to the movement of the tongue and lips. Broadly speaking, the vowels and diphthongs of Afrikaans are characterised by a notably laxed articulatory basis. Schwa plays an important role in the case of the true diphthong /əi/, where it has /ə/ as a starting point in the articulatory movement of the tongue; this also applies to the final segment in the close-mid long vowels i.e. front /e/ and /ø/ as well as back /o/; all these long vowels show a strong tendency to have schwa as target (thus /e/ is realised as /iə/, /ø/ as /yœ/, and /o/ as /uə/). A notable consequence of such lax articulation is to be observed in the inclination towards derounding of the marked rounded vowels /y/, /ø/ and /œ/ to respectively /i/, /e/ and /ə/. In the speech-production of a large proportion of Afrikaans speakers this unrounding even leads to near-neutralisation of these marked rounded vowels with their unmarked pairs.

Figure 1: IPA Vowel chart of the standard Afrikaans vowels
[click image to enlarge]

  1. Vowels are placed according to the IPA vowel chart
  2. Numbers 1 – 8 indicate the eight cardinal vowels; they are thus placed in their most extreme position; Afrikaans vowels generally show a far laxer and less extreme positioning
  3. The vowels on the right of the three shaded blocks are rounded counterparts of those on their left.
  4. The following alternate labels are used:
    1. According to the horizontal position of the tongue: frontcentralback
    2. According to the vertical position of the tongue: highmid-highlow - mid-low
    3. According to the relative openness of the mouth: closeclose-midopen-midopen

Vowels are produced either with or without rounded lips throughout most of their articulation; we refer to vowels.

  1. The four pairs of vowel in grey blocks are marked and unmarked as to roundedness. The members on the left are unrounded; those on the right are rounded. Back vowels are per definition rounded.
  2. The long low, open vowel /a/ and the short front low /ɑ/; /a/ tends in some, particularly young speakers, to be even more back and slightly to definitely rounded (in which case it is transcribed as [ɒ]).
  3. The rounded vowels of Afrikaans are /y/, /u/, /ø/, /o/, /œ/ and /ɔ/, and the rounded diphthongs are /œu/ and /œy/. The rest are unrounded, viz. /i/, /e/, /a/, /ɑ/, /ɛ/ and /ə/ as well as the diphthong /əi/. Due to the special status of rounded vowels that have unrounded counterparts, they are also called marked rounded vowels; the unrounded ones are thus unmarked. Marked vowels are traditionally called 'normal round'; unmarked ones are called 'abnormal'.
[+]The articulation of vowel segments

Vowel segments are commonly described in terms of four features: roundedness, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of production in the mouth cavity, and duration. Here the focus is on the first three.

[+]Rounded / unrounded vowels

Rounded vowels are produced with rounded lips throughout most of their articulation; unrounded vowels have neutral or spread lips throughout most of their articulation. The monophthongal rounded vowels of Afrikaans are /y/, /u/, /ø/, /o/, /œ/ and /ɔ/; the rounded diphthongs are /œy/ and /œu/. The unrounded vowels include the monophthongal /i/, /e/, /a/, /ə/, /ɛ/ and /ɑ/; and the diphthong /əi/.

Afrikaans is often characterised by the underrounding of round vowels and round diphthongs; in many cases they may even be completely unrounded, sometimes leading to neutralisation.

[+]High, high-mid, low-mid, low vowels

Vowels are often subdivided according to the vertical dimension, that is, on the basis of the closeness of the tongue to the roof of the mouth (either the hard palate or the velum). Generally four levels of tongue height are recognised, viz. high, high-mid, low-mid and low. The high vowels of Afrikaans are /i/, /y/ and /u/. The high-mid vowels are /e/, /ø/, /o/. The /o/ vowel often shows a diphthongal character in most varieties of Afrikaans. While /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ are usually, as in Dutch, identified as low-mid, Afrikaans /ɛ/ is very often a high-mid vowel (see the acoustic vowel charts below). The low vowels are /a/ and /ɑ/.

[+]Front, front-central, back-central, back vowels

Vowels are also described according to the horizontal dimension, that is, according to whether the tongue is relatively advanced, neutral or retracted in the mouth. Three or four levels of front-/backness are identified, depending on whether the central category is further subdivided into front-central and back-central. The front vowels of Afrikaans are /i/, /y/, /e/, /ø/, /ɛ/. The /y/ and /ø/ vowels, when clearly rounded, may then be characterised as front-central, as is the case in Dutch. The /e/ and /ø/ vowels mostly show a diphthongal character in most varieties of Afrikaans. The /ɑ/ vowel is front-central as well. The /a/ vowel is back-central, while /ɔ/, /o/ and /u/ are back vowels. The /u/ vowel is frequently centralised to a clear extent, in which case it has a back-central character.

Geographic and ethnic background, as well as age, and sometimes gender, all play important roles in the specific production of vowels, but especially that of /a/(Wissing 2006) and /u/(Wissing 2010).

In the following section the acoustic features of the vowel segments are dealt with.

[+]Acoustic vowel charts of Afrikaans

In Figure 2 the acoustic vowel chart of the Standard Afrikaans (SAfr.) vowels is provided; the same is done in Figure 4 for coloured Afrikaans (CAfr.). Figure 3 and Figure 5 show the respective charts for the diphthongs and diphthongised vowel segments.

Figure 2: Acoustic vowel chart of Standard Afrikaans
[click image to enlarge]
Figure 3: The diphthongs and diphthongised vowels of Standard Afrikaans
[click image to enlarge]

  1. Schwa /ə/ is added as a point of reference. Note that the three long vowels, /e/, /o/ and /ø/ all incline towards it.
  2. In the case of these three long vowels, the phonemic transcriptions, /e/, /o/ and /ø/, are complemented by their respective close phonetic transciptions in brackets.
  3. On the grounds of the lack of true monophthongal alternative productions of these thee long vowels, a case might be made for the acceptance of /iə/, /uə/ and /yœ/ as diphthongal phonemes instead of the currently unanimous use of /e/, /o/ and /ø/ as phonemes.

Figure 4: Acoustic vowel chart of Coloured Standard Afrikaans
[click image to enlarge]
Figure 5: The diphthongs and diphongised vowels of Standard Coloured Afrikaans
[click image to enlarge]

Basically the same tendency as to the direction of the arrows is found for Standard Afrikaans and coloured Afrikaans. This is in support of the claim that diphthongisation of the long mid-high vowels are a very common feature of the Afrikaans vowel system in general.

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