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The diphthongs /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/

Because of the shared property of these three segments they are included here in a single vowel category: diphthongs.

The three diphthongs of Afrikaans are the unrounded /əi/ as well as its rounded counterpart /œy/, and also /œu/. See for example (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Wissing 2017; Wissing 2014; Coetzee 1982; De Villiers and Ponelis 1992; Combrink and De Stadler 1987). Derounding of /œy/ to /əi/ regularly takes place across the Afrikaans linguistic landscape, especially, but not exclusively, in informal styles, including at more rapid speech rates.

a. reis /rəis/ [rəis] to travel
b. ruis /rœys/ [rœys]   / noise
c. sous /sœus/ [sœus] sauce

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 ethnic groups. The diphthongs of Standard Dutch (SNdl.) will be included in the current descriptions below.

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.


The phoneme /əi/ is an unrounded diphthong, moving from a neutral position in the mouth to mid-high to high; /œy/ is the rounded counterpart of /əi/; it is produced similarly, but is somewhat more centralised than /əi/. The /œu/, moves from a centre-to-back position, up to the high-back region, in the direction of /u/.

Figure 1 of the IPA vowel chart portrays the idealised positions of Standard Afrikaans vowels. Note that the diphthongs are not directly included here, but the general vowel context is necessary for an understanding of their articulation.

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 diphthongs may vary per speaker based on age, gender, speech community, and also according to speech rate and style. Their duration as well as quality tends to reduce in rapid speech and in informal style, thus generally becoming shorter. Derounding is a specific consequence of such reduction in the case of the two rounded diphthongs, rendering a similar, even identical product in the case of /œy/ and /əi/ and [əi].

[+]Temporal values

All three of these diphthongs are phonetically long. Average durations of 123 ms for /əi/, 116 ms for /œy/, and 120 ms for /œu/ were discovered for the SAfr. speaker mentioned above, in the phonetic context /s_s/, read in a word-list style. Respective temporal values for CAfr., using diverse phonetic contexts, but still in a wordlist style are: 258 ms, 256 ms and 183 ms. The considerbly larger durational values may be ascribed to the fact that the words containing these diphthongs were read in isolation, as opposed to in a carrier sentence.

[+]Spectral values

The following table and set of figures focus on the formant features of the three diphthongs /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/. Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch (StD) was found in the description of Dutch in Taalportaal: Dutch.

Formant frequencies for the diphthongs /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/
Table 1: Formant frequencies for the diphthongs /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/
/əi/ F1 Onset /əi/ F1 Offset /əi/ F2 Onset /əi/ F2 Offset /œy/ F1 Onset /œy/ F1 Offset /œy/ F2 Onset /œy/ F2 Offset /œu/ F1 Onset /œu/ F1 Offset /œu/ F2 Onset /œu/ F2 Offset
Standard Afrikaans 533 432 1929 2198 506 447 1667 1814 485 376 1504 1396
Standard Dutch 656 390 1827 2162 693 410 1527 1627 682 393 1209 984

[+]Waveforms and spectrograms

First the waveforms and spectrograms of the diphthongs are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 2 shows the wave form and spectrograms of the diphthongs /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/ as embedded in the nonsense context /s_s/, in this case respectively seis, suis and sous.

Table 2
Sound Sound waves and spectrogram
Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

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

[+]Formant plots of /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/

Figure 3 portrays the formant tracks of the three dipthongs are presented alongside each other, from left to right /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/.

Figure 3
[click image to enlarge]

  1. F1 is the red track at the bottom of the figures, F2 is the green track (and F3 the black one at the top).
  2. The two patterns are very similar, although the portions above the red horizontal line show some differences.
  3. F2 of all the diphthongs shows (Van Wyk 1977) the gliding character the most clearly – see Figure 4 for arrows that are more clear as to the direction and magnitude of the glides.
  4. F2 of /əi/ is visibly higher than that of /œy/, an indication of the more rounded quality of /əi/. This is also clearly to be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4 portrays the acoustic features of the three diphthongised long vowels of Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch.

Figure 4
[click image to enlarge]

  1. As expected, the three diphthongs of Standard Afrikaans and those of Standard Dutch are similar as far as the general direction of the arrows are concerned – pointing in the region of the high vowels /i/, /y/ and /u/.
  2. It is noteable that the Dutch diphthongs are much wider than those of Afrikaans. As such, this is also perceptually observable.
  3. The fact that Afrikaans' /u/ as being strongly centralised (Wissing 2010) is also visible from the offset of the /œu/ diphthong.

[+]Phonological analysis of /əi/, /œy/ and /œu/

The three Afrikaans diphthongs share some specific phonological features. Being regarded as nuclei of superheavy syllables, they are mostly stress attracting. Except in instances where they form part of personal pronouns, sy /səi/ she, and other highly frequently used words, diphthongs tend not to reduce to schwa, like is the case with other vowels. An example is /əi/ > /ə/, especially in unaccented sentence positions, for example /səi/ > [sə]Sy sê sy sal ... She says she will....

In Modern Afrikaans a strong tendency of lowering of the first segment of /əi/ towards /ɑ/ is observed. This, of course, is also applicable to the first segment of /œy/ in the case of unrounding to /əi/. This is, albeit less clear, also the case of /œu/.


Nasalisation is rare in diphthongs.


The three diphthongs are present in all syllable positions in Afrikaans, as nuclei in onsetless syllables as well as in syllables preceded by at most three consonants. They may be followed by codas of up to two consonants, though not by CC clusters made up of two non-coronals such as in Dutch. Thus eind, skuins, (van)ouds end, skew, old-fashioned but *eimp , *uimp, *oump.

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