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The unrounded low-central vowel /a/

The phoneme /a/ is one of the most frequently used Afrikaans vowel phonemes, and is a member of the set of long vowels, /a/, /o/, /e/ and /ø/ (See Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Van Wyk 1977; Coetzee 1982; De Villiers and Ponelis 1987; Combrink and De Stadler 1987; Wissing 2017). Apart from a few single syllable Afrikaans words, like ja, pa, ma, vra, it is not commonly found in word-final positions. Likewise, karba and hoera , with stress on the final syllable, are exceptions. This is a special feature of Afrikaans, compared to the situation in Dutch.

a. maan /man/ [man] moon
b. apparaat /ɑ.pɑ.rat/ [ɑ.pɑ.'rat] apparatus
c. aarde /ar.də / ['ar.də] earth

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 Standard Afrikaans. Participants (N = 344) in this survey were from all walks of life, male and female and of different ages and ethnicity groups. In some figures below, the /a/ of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) is shown alongside that of SAfr. Vowel information with respect to SNdl. was found in the description of Dutch /a/.

Where relevant, acoustic vowel information on Afrikaans as spoken in Genadendal, Western Cape (henceforth abbreviated as GDAfr.), is provided. On the basis of its important role in the historic evolution of Afrikaans, it is considered here to be a prototype of coloured Afrikaans (CAfr.). There are of course many other varieties of coloured Afrikaans. The above-mentioned information is based on recordings of a number of aged female speakers of Genadendal.

The long /a/ is produced on the horizontal dimension in a central to central-back position. The jaw is dropped, which causes the mouth to be relatively open. Consequently, it is described as a long low-central vowel. Figure 1 below is an idealised depiction and is thus somewhat misleading with respect to Afrikaans /a/. See Figure 2 below for an acoustic plot providing a more realistic representation.

Figure 1
[click image to enlarge]

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

[+]Acoustic features

The formant frequencies as well as temporal values of vowels vary per speaker based on age, gender, speech community, and also according to speech rate and style. Vowel durations as well as quality tend to reduce in rapid speech and in informal style, thus generally becoming shorter and tending in the direction of schwa.

[+]Temporal values

The phoneme /a/ is a long vowel. An average duration of 187 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 features of /a/. Where applicable it is compared to that of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) as well as to CAfr. Vowel information with respect to SNdl. was found in the description of Dutch /a/.

[+]Acoustic plot

Figure 2 is based on the formant values given in Table 2 and 3 below. It provides an acoustic plot of the Afrikaans vowels as produced by the prototypical standard speaker mentioned above.

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

  1. The long /a/ is encircled together with short /ɑ/.
  2. The F1 value of CAfr. is very similar to that of SAfr., viz. 674 Hz (compared to 762 Hz). The F2 of CAfr. (1419 Hz) is, as is the case for SAfr., clearly indicative of an unrounded vowel. This is, however, not the case in the pronunciation of many young speakers of Modern Afrikaans.
  3. Long /a/ of Dutch is not shown here, because its F1 (801 Hz) is higher than the allowed y-axis range. Its F2 is about similar to the short /ɑ/ of Afrikaans (1498 Hz) – see Table 1 below.

[+]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 /a/ as embedded in the nonsense form /s_s/, here /saas/ [sas]. Here the relevant information concerning short /ɑ/ is added for comparison.

Waveforms (A) of the nonsense words /sas/ [sɑs] and /saas/ [sas], and their spectrograms (B)
Table 1: Waveforms (A) of the nonsense words /sas/ [sɑs] and /saas/ [sas], and their spectrograms (B)
Sound Sound waves and spectrogram
Figure 3
[click image to enlarge]

Listen to the pronunciation of the two nonsense words that were used in producing the wave forms and the spectrograms.

[+]Formant plots

Figure 4 below shows the formant tracks of the vowel /a/ as produced in the same phonetic context as in Figure 3, viz. /s_s/. It gives the F1/F2 values of this vowel as provided in Table 1. F3 is added to the plot, but merely for secondary reasons.

Tables 2 and 3: Formant frequency values of /a/ in Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch. Values are in Hertz. /ɑ/ is included for comparison purposes.

Formant frequency values of /a/
Table 2: Formant frequency values of /a/
/a/ F1 F2
Standard Afrikaans 628 1181
Standard Durch 986 1443

Formant frequency of /ɑ/
Table 3: Formant frequency of /ɑ/
/ɑ/ F1 F2
Standard Afrikaans 687 1494
Standard Dutch 762 1117

Figure 4: Formant plots of long and short /a/
[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). A lower F2 in the case of /a/ clearly reflects a back quality. The formant track of /a/ is indicative of a tendency towards a non-monophthongal character.

[+]Phonological analysis of /a/

A possible feature specification of  /a/  is -HIGH,, +LOW, +BACK, +TENSE and -ROUND.

[+]Vowel reduction

The /a/ is particularly susceptible to reduction to schwa ( /ә/), and particularly to short /ɑ/. An examples of reduction to schwa is: Namib [na.məb] na.məp > nә.'mə.bi.jə Namibia, and that of shortening (of the first syllable) and a change to short /ɑ/ is: 'Afrika a.fri.ka > /a.fri.ka/ ['a.fri.ka] Africa > [ɑ.fri.'kans] Afrikaans


Although nasalisation of all Afrikaans vowels has been a distinct characteristic of the vowel system for 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. Practically no evidence is found in coloured varieties, as is evident in the pronunciation of Genadendal Afrikaans speakers. Nasalisation of long vowels is less common (Coetzee 1977).

As with other Afrikaans vowels, nasalisation happens mostly when followed by the alveolar nasal /n/ + a fricative consonant, predominantly /s/. Though not exclusively, nasalisation is more often to be expected when the alveolar nasal is tautosyllabic. Obviously this applies to /a/ too, for example in Afrikaans /ɑ.fri.'kans/ɑ.fri.'kã:s Afrikaans.

[+]Rounding of /a/ to /ɒ/

It is a notable characteristic of long /a/, especially when in an accented position, to be pronounced as a fully-back vowel, in some cases even with a clear rounded character. In excessive cases it is misheard as /ɔ:/. Read Wissing (2006) for a detailed description. This is a relatively modern sound change, noticed in many younger speakers of White Afrikaans, especially female persons of the northern parts of South Africa.

[+]Phonotactics of /a/

The phoneme /a/ occurs freely in all syllable positions, though in the case of Afrikaans less frequently in word-final position. As a long vowel it commonly attracts stress.

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