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The unrounded and rounded close front vowels /i/ and /y/

The two close (or high) frontvowels of Afrikaans, viz. the unrounded /i/ and the previously called "abnormal" (currently named marked) rounded counterpart /y/, are classified by most Afrikaans phoneticians and phonologists as short (e.g. Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; De Villiers et al. 1981; Combrink and De Stadler 1987; Wissing 2017; Wissing 2014; Coetzee 1989; De Villiers and Ponelis 1987). This is in contrast to the classification of these vowels by Dutch phonologists as being long. Here we handle these two vowels as a pair in order to point out the strong tendency for them to be neutralised with regards to the distinctive feature round.

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 (SAfr.). Participants (N = 344) in this survey were from all walks of life, male and female and of different ages and ethnicity groups. The phonemes /i/ and /u/ of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) are shown alongside that of SAfr.. Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch is found in the description of Dutch /i/ and /u/.

Where relevant, acoustic vowel information on the Afrikaans as spoken in Genadendal, Western Cape (henceforth abbreviated as GDAfr.), will be provided. It will here be taken as a prototype of coloured Afrikaans CAfr.). Of course there are many other variants of CAfr. The GDAfr. information is based on recordings of a number of aged female speakers of that town that is important in the history of South Africa.


The phonemes /i/ and /u/ are both produced with the tongue body fronted while the tongue tip is down. In the case of /y/ the lips are rounded. Because of pursing of the lips, the front mouth cavity is (slightly) enlarged. In many cases, even in formal speech style, the difference in rounding is minimised to such a degree that the opposition rounded: unrounded is neutralised. Figure 1 shows the idealised position of these two high-front vowels in the context of the IPA vowel chart.

Figure 1
[click image to enlarge]

Both 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 the temporal values of vowels vary per speaker based on age, gender, speech community, and also according to speech rate and style. Vowel duration as well as quality tends to reduce in rapid speech and in informal style, thus generally becoming shorter and tending in the direction of schwa. In many cases /y/ shows a strong tendency to unround, becoming [i], or near to [i] leading to the neutralisation of the distinction rounded: unrounded (Wissing 2013). Below we provide the formant values of /y/ in its optimal production as rounded vowel of Standard Afrikaans.

[+]Temporal values

The phoneme /i/ is mostly a short vowel phonetically, mostly long before /r/. The /y/ is also usually phonetically short, but in many instances this is not the case, as in the productions provided below in the /s_s/ context. An average duration of 64 ms was measured for the SAfr. speaker's [i] in the phonetic context /s_s/, read in a word-list style. For /y/ it was 146 ms.

[+]Spectral values

The following table and set of figures focus on the formant features of [i] and [y]. Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch (StD) was found in the description of Dutch [i] and [y] in Taalportaal.

[+]Acoustic plot

Figure 2 shows the position of /i/ and /u/ relative to the other vowels of Standard Afrikaans.

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

  1. The Standard Afrikaans phonemes /i/ and /u/ are encircled; those of Standard Dutch are indicated by the abbreviation StD + /i/. The Afrikaans /i/ and /y/ are situated in the upper-left corner of the chart; corresponding closely to the articulatory close front vowel position in Figure 1.
  2. While Dutch /y/ is clearly positioned to the right of /i/, indicating a definite rounded quality for the former, this is not the case with Afrikaans' /y/. It might be possible, however, for /y/ to be perceived as (sligthly) rounded on grounds of a notably higher position – its F1 is evidently lower than that of /i/. The greater duration of /y/ might also contribute to the perception of /y/ as rounded or at least different to /i/.
  3. Interestingly, a situation very similar to that of SAfr. is visible with regard to the /i/ and /y/ of Genadendal-Afrikaans. In this case too /y/ shows a definitely higher F1 value compared to that of /y/, while they exhibit near identical F2 values. The F1-readings of Genadendal Afrikaans /i/ and /y/ are respectively 324 Hz; 278 Hz, and the F2-readings are 2503 Hz; 2436 Hz. A similar difference in vowel duration is found here too, with the /i/ of CAfr. being around 100 ms, and that of /y/ being above 200 ms.

[+]Wave-form and spectrogram

Figure 3 shows the vowel /i/ and /y/ as embedded in the nonsense form /s_s/, in this case sies and suus

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.

Specifically due to the extreme shortness of /i/ in the spectrogram above, its F2 is rather unclear. Also, the precise formant tracks are not visible in spectrograms in general. Visibility may be enhanced by extracting such tracks from the acoustic information included in the wave forms of vowels. In this present case, as is depicted in Figure 4, this is rather obscured. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness of the description of the acoustic characteristics of vowels, such plots will in all cases be included.

Figure 4: Formant plots of /i/ (left) and /y/ (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). Though there is a difference in the configuration of the two plots, these differences are not quite supportive in terms of discovering what precisely the acoustic difference is between the rounded and unrounded vowels that underlies the perceptual difference. See also the topic on the rounded and unrounded mid-high front vowel pair /e/ and /ø/, as well as the neutral/mid-central pair /ә/ and /œ/ for such clear difference with regard to F2 values as bearers of roundedness.

[+]Phonological analysis of /i/ and /y/

Treating /i/ as a short vowel, in contrast to Dutch, is evident in Le Roux and Pienaar (1927), De Villiers et al. (1981), Combrink and De Stadler (1987) and Wissing (2017). It is mostly short phonetically, and also clearly perceivable as such. On the other hand /y/ is generally longer than /i/. Both of them elongate when followed by /r/ in coda position, for example in bier /bir/ [bi:r] beer; muur /myr/ [my:r] wall. This phenomenon is not restricted to /i/ and /y/; /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ in many instances show the same tendency.


Although nasalisation of all Afrikaans vowels has been a distinct characteristic of the vowel system for much of the previous 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. The /i/ commonly nasalises, e.g. diens /dins/ [d ĩ: s]; not many common words exist in this specific phonetic environment (Coetzee 1977).

[+]Phonological analysis of /i/ and /y/

The phoneme /i/ occurs frequently in both stressed and unstressed syllables and especially in word-final, open-syllable position, as an extremely productive diminutive suffix -ie, -pie, -kie, -tjie and -etjie (pronounced as [iki]). These allomorphs have as equivalents the Dutch allomorphs -je, -pje, -kje, -tje and -etje, all with final schwa (Booij 1995), thus leading to Afrikaans /i/ being a much more frequently occurring phoneme than the Dutch equivalent.

Monomorphemes ending on -ie take the plural form -s in all cases, as is the case with the other short Afrikaans vowels, but unlike words ending on long, stress-bearing /i:/, like orgie > orgieë orgy, and scores of derived words of foreign origin such as mitologie > mitologieë, or fonologie > fonologieë. This fact might be taken as evidence in favour of accepting /i/ as a genuine Afrikaans short vowel.

The frequency of appearance of /y/ is much more restricted. It does, however, occur in a few highly-frequency words such as /u/ /'y/ you, /uur/ /'yr/ hour, /minuut/ /mi.'nyt/ minute, /vuur/ /'fyr/ and /nuus/ /'nys/ news, all of them within closed syllables. Somewhat less frequent words, having /y/ in open syllables, include /individu/ /ən.di.vi.'dy/ individual, /sku/ /'sky/ shy, /skadu/ /'ska.dy/ shadow In some cases /y/ tends to deround, for example skaduwee /ska.dy.ve/ ['ska.də.ve] shadow.

  • Booij, Geert1995Allomorfie en paradigmatiekLeuvense Bijdragen84447-464
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