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The unrounded mid-front vowel /ɛ/

The unrounded mid-front /ɛ/ is quite common, though it does not count as one of the four most frequently used Afrikaans vowel phonemes. It is a member of the set of short vowels, namely: /i/; /y/; /u/; /ɛ/; /ɔ/; /œ/; /ә/; /ɑ/ (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Van Wyk 1977; Coetzee 1982; De Villiers and Ponelis 1987; Combrink and De Stadler 1987; Wissing 2019). It shows considerable variation, especially with respect to region and ethnicity, but also to an extent in relation to the age of speakers.

a. wen /vɛn/ [vɛn] win
b. lekker /lɛ.kәr/ ['lɛ.kәr]   / ['læ.kәr] nice
c. September /sɛp.tɛm.bәr/ ['sɛp.tɛm.bәr] September

The Standard Afrikaans (SAfr.) speaker referred to below is a prototypical standard speaker and a prominent radio personality. In a recent survey she was nominated as the most appropriate speaker of SAfr. Participants (N = 344) in this survey were from all walks of life, male and female and of different ages and ethnicity groups /ɛ/ of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) is shown alongside that of SAfr. Vowel information with respect to SNdl.'s was found in the description of Dutch /ɛ/.

Where relevant, acoustic vowel information on Afrikaans as spoken in Genadendal, Western Cape (henceforth abbreviated as GDAfr.), will be provided. On the basis of its historically important standing in the evolution of Afrikaans, it will here be taken as a prototype of coloured Afrikaans (in this respect also referred to as CAfr.). Of course there are many other variants as well. The above-mentioned information is is based on recordings of a number of aged female speakers of Genadendal.


The short /ɛ/ is an unrounded, mid to high-mid, front short vowel. The tongue body is raised towards the palate.

Figure 1 shows the Afrikaans vowel phonemes within the IPA vowel chart. Note that this is an idealised depiction; a realistic acoustic vowel chart is presented as Figure 2 below.

Figure 1
[click image to enlarge]

Both the alternate sets of tongue height positions are indicated: (high – lows) how the height of the tongue in relation to the oral cavity; (open – close) refer to the degree of openness of the mouth during pronunciation. Here, and elsewhere, the latter set is used here.

[+]Acoustic features

The formant frequencies as well as the temporal values of vowels vary per speaker based on age, gender, speech community, and also according to speech rate and style.

[+]Temporal value

The phoneme /ɛ/ is a short vowel, in some instances lengthened before /r/. An average duration of 77 ms was found for the SAfr. speaker measured in the phonetic context /s_s/, read in a word-list style.

[+]Spectral values

The following table and set of figures highlight the formant frequency features of /ɛ/. It will be compared to that of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) as well as to CAfr.

[+]Acoustic plot

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

  1. The SAfr. phoneme /ɛ/ is encircled; that of SNdl. is indicated by the abbreviation StD.
  2. The F1 value of CAfr. ( is a bit lower than that of SAfr., viz. 472 Hz, but still much higher than SNdl.'s 669 Hz.).
  3. SNdl.'s /ɛ/ seems to be quite central, thus also more flat than the Afrikaans varieties.

[+]Waveforms and spectrograms

Normally the formant characteristics of vowels are visible from their spectrograms, especially with regard to their formant tracks. Figure 3 shows the vowel /ɛ/ as embedded in the nonsense form /s_s/, here /sɛs/ [sɛs].

The table below includes wave form (A) of the nonsense word /sɛs/ [sɛs], and its spectrogram (B).

Table 1
Sound Soundwaves and spectrogram
Figure 3
[click image to enlarge]

Listen to the pronunciation of the nonsense words that were used in producing the wave form and the spectrogram.

[+]Formant plots

Figure 5 shows the formant tracks of the vowel /ɛ/ as produced in the same phonetic context as in Figure 3, viz. /s_s/. It gives the F1/F2 values of this vowel as presented in Table 1. F3 is added to the plot, but merely for secondary reasons.

Formant frequency values of /ɛ/ in Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch
Table 2: Formant frequency values of /ɛ/ in Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch
/ɛ/ F1 (Hz) F2 (Hz)
Standard Afrikaans 403 2377
Standard Dutch 669 1905

Figure 4
[click image to enlarge]

F1 is the red track at the bottom of the figures, F2 is the green track (and F3 the black one at the top). The relative straightness of /ɛ/'s formant track shows it to be a true monophthongal vowel.

[+]Phonological analysis of /ɛ/

A possible feature specification of  /ɛ/  is +high, +mid, -back, +tense, -round.

[+]Variations of /ɛ/

The phoneme /ɛ/ has a special status as to the range of variants found in different Afrikaans varieties, in different styles, and in diverse regional as well as age groups (see De Villiers and Ponelis (1992) for examples).

  1. In koine it is mostly lowered to [æ] when followed by /l/, /r/, /x/ and /k/ (sel; ver; weg; hek).
  2. In cases like ver /fɛr/ [fɛ:r] far this vowel is lengthened to a considerable degree.
  3. Some other non-standard forms with [æ] include (tjello; Wellington; Checkers; lektor; rekord) this vowel is not lowered in SAfr.
  4. It is, however, somewhat less low in comparison to the instances mentioned in 1 when followed by the high /i/ vowel; probably due to a co-articulatory effect (kerrie; flerrie ).
  5. E especially in the southern regions of South Africa /ɛ/ tends to become a palatalised [jæ] (in melk; sel etc.). In CAfr., as portrayed in the Afrikaans of Genadendal, this also the case, specifically in the pronunciation of the older generation.
  6. The /ɛ/ readily reduces to schwa in unaccented function words like en /ɛn/ and; also in the personal pronoun ek /ɛk/ I. Less frequently occurring examples are in content words, like in the first syllable of register /rɛ.xәs.tәr/ [rә.'.xәs.tәr] register and petrol /pɛ.trɔl/ ['pɛ.trəl] petrol > petrolium /pɛ.tro.li.œm/ [pə.'tro.li.œm] petroleum; also frequently in ter, as in terloops /tɛr.lops/ [tər.'lops] and terselfdertyd /tɛr.sɛlf.dər.təid/ [tər.'sɛlf.dər.təit]. See also the topic on lowering of front mid vowel /ɛ/, as well as Wissing (2019).


Although nasalisation of all Afrikaans vowels has been a distinct characteristic of the vowel system during much of the past century (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927), it seems to be much less the case in recent years, especially in the speech of younger persons (De Villiers and Ponelis 1992). Practically no evidence is found in coloured varieties, as is evident in the pronunciation of Genadendal Afrikaans speakers.

As with other Afrikaans vowels, nasalisation mostly happens when followed by the alveolar nasal /n/ + a fricative consonant, predominantly /s/. Though not without exception, nasalisation is more common tautosyllabically. Obviously this applies to /ɛ/ too, for example in wens /vɛns/ [vɛ̃:s] to wish(Coetzee 1977).

[+]Phonotactics of /ɛ/

The /ɛ/ can occur without an onset, or it may be preceded by up to three consonants (e.g. strek to stretch). Except in a few interjections, like and the adverb /pɛ://, it should be followed by one or at most two consonants. Very occasionally, it surfaces as a long [ɛ:] /ɛ/ in word-final, open syllables, in a few words like /sɛ:// to say. No other restrictions on its distribution have been noted.

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