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The rounded and unrounded mid-central vowels /ә/ and /œ/

Unlike in Dutch, Afrikaans /ә/ is generally classified as a full vowel phoneme (e.g. by Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Van Wyk 1977; Combrink and De Stadler 1987; De Villiers and Ponelis 1992; Wissing 1994; Wissing 2011). Moreover, it is seen as being short and therefore forms part of the group of other short Afrikaans vowels, viz. /i/, /y/, /u/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/, /ɑ/, /œ/, /ә/ and /œ/. Parallel to /i/ and /y/, the close-front vowels, /ә/ is classified as the unrounded counterpart to the other rounded neutral vowel, /œ/. As is the case with /y/ and /œ/ exhibits a very strong tendency to become unrounded and thus this pair of vowels show a definite tendency towards neutralising the opposition Round vs. Unround, a phenomenon not restricted to informal speaking styles and rapid speech.

In (1) some examples with /ә/ as vowel are presented; in (2) for /œ/:

a. immer /ә.mәr/ ['ә.mәr] always
b. wind /vәnd/ [vәnt] wind
c. hitte /hә.tә/ ['hә.tә] heat
a. ultimatum /œl.ti.ma.tœm/ [œl.ti.'ma.tœm] ultimatum
b. sukkel /sœ.kәl/ ['sœ.kәl] to struggle
c. kursus /kœr.sœs/ ['kœr.sœs] course

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. The /ә/ and /œ/ of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) is shown alongside that of SAfr. Vowel information with respect to SNdl. was found in the description of Dutch on Taalportaal.

Where relevant, acoustic vowel information on the 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 variants of coloured Afrikaans. The above-mentioned acoustic information is based on recordings of a number of aged female speakers of Genadendal.


The phonemes /ә/ and /œ/ are both mid-central, produced with a neutral tongue position. In the case of /œ/ the lips are slightly rounded. In cases of notable rounding, the lips are pursed somewhat, resulting in the front mouth cavity being enlarged. In many cases, even in formal speech style, the difference in rounding is minimised, up to the point of neutralising the opposition rounded: unrounded. Figure 1 below shows the idealised position of these two mid-central vowels in the context of the IPA vowel chart.

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) type refer to the degree of openness of the mouth during pronunciation. The latter set is used here and elsewhere.

[+]Acoustic features

The formant frequency 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, generally becoming shorter and tending in the direction of schwa. Wissing (2011) points out that /œ/, in many cases, shows a strong tendency to be unrounded, changing to [ә], or nearby, leading to the neutralisation of the rounded: unrounded distinction. Nevertheless, we present the formant values of /œ/ in its optimal production as a rounded vowel of Standard Afrikaans.

[+]Temporal values

The phoneme /ә/ and /œ/ are both short vowels. Average durations of 66 ms and 76 ms were found for the SAfr. speaker, measured in the phonetic context /s_s/, read in a wordlist style.

[+]Spectral values

The following table and set of figures focuses on the formant features of the unmarked rounded and unrounded mid-central vowels of Standard Afrikaans (SAfr.). Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch (SNdl.) was found in the description of Dutch /ә/ and /œ/ in the respective topics in Taalportaal: Dutch.

[+]Acoustic plot

Figure 2 shows the position of /ә/ and /œ/ relative to the other vowels of Standard Afrikaans.

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

  1. The phonemes /ә/ and /œ/ of Standard Afrikaans are encircled; those of Standard Dutch are indicated by the abbreviation StD + /ә/ or /œ/. The central position of Afrikaans /ә/ and /œ/ in the chart is in correspondence with Figure 1, and the description of these vowels as neutral.
  2. The rounded character of /œ/ is clear from the lower F1 value in comparison to /ә/. As mentioned before, this is not standard for general Afrikaans; it might be attributed, however, to the "standardness" of the pronunciation of this elite speaker of Afrikaans, as well as to the fact that the token words were read in word-list style. M many other standard speakers, notably young people, do not display such prolific roundedness of /œ/ as in this case.
  3. The F2 values of coloured Afrikaans show only a slight inclination towards rounding of /œ/. Its F2 (1542 Hz) is only somewhat lower than that for CAfr. /ә/. Note, however, the near identical F1's of these vowels in CAfr.: 481 Hz for /ә/, and 478 Hz for /œ/.
  4. Dutch /œ/ occupies a similar position to that of Afrikaans; /ә/, on the other hand, lies markedly higher. This might be attributed to the fact that Dutch /ә/ and /œ/ do not constitute a minimal phonemic pair like in Afrikaans. Related to this is the fact that the values reported for Dutch /ә/ (see Taalportaal: /ә/), and as provided in Table 1 below, are all derived from unstressed nuclei given that /ә/ is never stressed in this language.

[+]Waveforms and spectrograms

Normally formant characteristics of vowels are visible from their spectrograms, especially with regard to their formant tracks. Figure 3 shows the vowels /ә/ and /œ/ as embedded in the nonsense forms /s_s/, here /sәs/ [sәs] and /sœs/ [sœs]. From the data provided in Figure 3 there is no clear evidence vis-a-vis the roundedness or unroundedness of the vowel. The formant plots (Figure 4) are more revealing in this regard.

Figure 3 portrays the wave forms (A) of the nonsense words /sәs/ [sәs] and /sœs/ [sœs], and their spectrograms (B).

Table 1
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 form and the spectrogram.

[+]Formant plots

The formant track of especially F2 is rather unclear in the spectrogram provided in Figure 3. It is therefore shown separately in Figure 4.

Table 2 portrays the formant frequency values of /ә/ and /œ/ in Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch. Values are in Hertz.

Formant frequencies for /ә/ and /œ/
Table 2: Formant frequencies for /ә/ and /œ/
/ә/ F1 /ә/ F2 /œ/ F1 /œ/ F2
Standard Afrikaans 445 1802 436 1608
Standard Dutch 340 1356 490 1688

Figure 4: Formant plots of /ә/ (left) and /œ/ (right)
[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 visible lower position of F2 (the green line) of /œ/ comparing to that of /ә/ reflects the rounded of this vowel.

[+]Phonological analysis of /ә/ and /œ/

A possible feature specification of  /ә/  is -HIGH, -MID, +NEUTRAL, -TENSE and -ROUND, and for /œ/-HIGH, -MID, +NEUTRAL, -TENSE and +ROUND.

Schwa ( /ә/) is a phonemic vowel of Afrikaans, historically seen as a replacement of Dutch /I/. Minimal pairs are, with pit /pәt/ pit as reference:

  1. pot /pɔt/ pot
  2. pet /pɛt/ cap
  3. pad /pɑt/ road
  4. poot /pot/ claw

The phoneme /ә/ has some distinct phonological characteristics, to be dealt with in the following sections.

[+]Vowel reduction

The schwa vowel, /ә/, takes a special position in Afrikaans as central vowel, in the sense that practically all vowels, short as well as long, and even diphthongs tend to reduce to this vowel, especially in function words, but also in unstressed positions. As has been pointed out above this is especially applicable to its rounded counterpart, /œ/. Examples of such reduction are:

  1. gordyn /xɔr.'dәin/> [xәr.'dәin] curtain ( /ɔ/> [ә])
  2. kanon /kɑ.'nɔn/> [kә.'nɔn] canon ( /ɑ/> [ә])
  3. soveel /'so.fel/> ['sә.fel] so much ( /o/> [ә])
  4. sy sê sy sal... /sәi sɛ: sәi sɑl/> [sә sɛ: sә sɑl] she says she will ( /әi/> [ә])


Although nasalisation of all Afrikaans vowels has been a distinct characteristic of the vowel system for much of the last century (cf. 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. Obviously this applies to /ә/ and /œ/ too.

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 to be expected when the alveolar nasal is tautosyllabic. Obviously this applies to /ә/ and /œ/ too, for example in Dinsdag /dәns.dɑx/ ['də̃:s.dɑx] Tuesday(Coetzee 1977).

[+]The /ә/ as plural morpheme

Together with -s, -e is the default plural morpheme of Afrikaans, for example in pitte /'pә.tә/ pits (sing. pit) and honde /'hon.dә/ dogs (sing. hond). See the description of Afrikaans plural formation in the section phonological processes elsewhere. Less common plurals also involve -e, namely in -ere and -ers, as in liedere (from lied song) and kinders (from kind child).

[+]Phonotactics of /ә/ and /œ/

While /ә/ in different frequency lists is found to be the most frequently used vowel phoneme in Afrikaans, four times more than the next vowel ( /ɑ/), /œ/ is bar one ( /ø/) the least common of all vowels. This fact has a definite impact on the phonotactic behaviour of these two phonemes. The /ә/ occurs virtually without limit in all syllable positions, viz. in structures like VX, XVX, and XV (where V = /ә/, stressed or unstressed, and X = one or more consonants). On the other hand, /œ/ only occurs in a limited number of words of foreign origin. This vowel is not found in wordfinal position, and only infrequently in wordinitial cases, such as ultra /œl.trɑ/ [œl.trɑ] ultra.

These two mid-central vowels behave much like the other short vowels of Afrikaans, with /œ/ notably more restricted.

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  • Combrink, J.G.H. & De Stadler, L.G1987Afrikaanse fonologie.Macmillan
  • De Villiers, M. & Ponelis, F.A1992Afrikaanse klankleer.Tafelberg
  • Le Roux, T.H. & Pienaar, P. de V1927Afrikaanse fonetiek.Juta
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  • Van Wyk, E.B1977Praktiese fonetiek vir taalstudente: 'n inleiding.Butterworth
  • Wissing, D1994Ontronding in wit en bruin Afrikaans.Literator15121-143,
  • Wissing, D2011Ontronding in Afrikaans / Derounding in Afrikaans.Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe511-20,
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