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The diphthongised long vowels /e/, /ø/ and /o/

The two mid-high front long vowels of Afrikaans, viz. the unrounded /e/ as well as its previously named abnormal (currently named marked) rounded counterpart /ø/, are both classified by most Afrikaans phoneticians and phonologists as broad closing diphthongs, or centring glides (Afrikaans gebreekte vokaal), rendering [iə] in the case of /e/, and [yœ] for /ø/. See for example Le Roux and Pienaar (1927); Wissing (2017); Combrink and De Stadler (1987); De Villiers and Ponelis (1992). The same goes for /o/, the rounded mid-high back vowel. Its diphthongised phonetic realisation is [uœ] or [uə].

Because of the shared property of these three vowels of being mid-high, long and diphthongised, they are described here as one category. In addition, the two mid-high front vowels /e/ and /ø/ form a pair, only differing with respect to the feature Round see Figure 1. The vowel /ø/ frequently derounds to /e/, or to a very similar vowel. 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.


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.

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 Afrikaans phonemes /e/ and /ø/ are both produced with the tongue body fronted while the tongue tip is down. In the case of /ø/ the lips are rounded. /o/, as the back counterpart of these two vowels, is formed with the tongue body somewhat retracted and raised, but less so than for  /u/, but more than for /ɔ/. The lips are rounded for /o/.

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 /ø/ shows a strong tendency to unround, becoming [e], or near to [e], leading to the neutralisation of the distinction rounded: unrounded (Wissing 2011). Below we provide the formant values of /ø/ in its optimal production as a rounded vowel of Standard Afrikaans. These two front vowels share the formant frequency properties of a low F1 and a high F2. The [o] also has a low F1, but, by virtue of being a back vowel, is typified as having a low F2.

[+]Temporal values

All three of these vowels are phonetically long. Average durations of 187 ms for /e/, 156 ms for /ø/ and 143 ms for /o/ were found for the SAfr. speaker mentioned-above, in the phonetic context /s_s/, read in a word-list style. Respective temporal values for coloured Afrikaans, using diverse phonetic contexts, but still in a word-list style are: 187 ms, 197 ms and 156 ms.

[+]Spectral values

The following table and set of figures focus on the formant features of the three vowels [e], [ø] and [o]. Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch (StD) was found in the description of Dutch in Taalportaal: Dutch.

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

  1. The phonemes /e/ and /ø/ of Standard Afrikaans are in the green circle; /o/ is encircled in red. The Standard Dutch vowels are indicated by the abbreviation StD + /e/, /ø/ and /o/. The Afrikaans /e/ and /ø/ are situated in the mid-upper-left corner of the chart; corresponding closely to the articulatory mid-high front vowel position in Figure 1.
  2. While Dutch /ø/ is clearly positioned to the right of /e/, indicating a definite rounded quality for the former, this is not the case with Afrikaans' /ø/ in relation to its /e/. This difference is indicative of the less rounded pronunciation of /ø/ as marked rounded front vowel.
  3. The unrounded front vowel /e/ of SNdl., SAfr. and CAfr. are, with regards to F2, quite similar (resp. 2352 Hz, 2385 Hz and 2374 Hz), all the values being indicative of a front vowel. But there is a clear difference as to the F2 of the rounded /ø/ of the Afrikaans varieties on the one hand, and that of Dutch on the other. The low F2 of Dutch, 1690 Hz, is manifestly lower than the on average 2380 Hz of SAfr. and CAfr. (resp. 2385 Hz; 2374 Hz). This is indicative of very little roundedness of /ø/, while the /ø/ of Dutch is greatly rounded.
  4. The situation sketched in 3 is a very clear representative picture regarding the matter of roundedness in general in Afrikaans. Very similar other situations are found in the vowel system of Afrikaans where the feature Round is relevant, especially where this is the only distinctive feature e.g. in the vowel pairs /ə/ and /œ/, and /i/ and /y/.

[+]Waveforms and spectrograms

First the waveforms and spectrograms of the two front vowels are presented in Figure 3, then that of /o/ in Figure 4.

Figure 3 shows the vowels /e/ and /œ/ as embedded in the nonsense context /s_s/, in this case sees and seus; Figure 4 is that of /o/.

Figure 3: Wave form (A) of the nonsense words /ses/ [siəs] and /søs/ [syœs], 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 waveforms and the spectrograms.

Figure 4: Waveform (A) of the nonsense words /sos/ [suəs] and its spectrogram (B).

Table 2
Sound Sound waves and spectrogram
Figure 4
[click image to enlarge]
[+]Formant plots of /e/ and /ø/

In Figure 5 the formant tracks of /e/ and /ø/ are shown; in Figure 6 the formant tracks of /o/ are presented. The information concerning the formant tracks of these three vowels' movements are made more clear in Figure 6 by using arrows.

Figure 5: Formant plots for /e/ and /ø/
[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. The gliding characteristics of both vowels are clear; the specific details of these are shown clearly in Figure 5.

Figure 6
[click image to enlarge]

  1. For purposes of reference, schwa's position has been added. Note that the arrows of these vowels all tend in its direction.
  2. Here the gliding characteristics of both vowels are clear.

[+]Phonological analysis of /e/, /ø/ and /o/

Being long, mid-high vowels, these three vowels share some specific phonological features. They are mostly stress attracting. Furthermore they all show variation with monophthongs in the form of vowel heightening and lowering, as explained in the following subsections. Read also Quality alternation of front vowels and Quality alternation of back vowels.

[+]Vowel heightening

According to De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) /e/ and /o/ used to be hightened to a considerable degree in some regions of the Western Cape (They based their description on Van Rensburg (1981)). They state that hightening prodominantly occurs in open, single syllabled words (e.g. gee to give; nee no; see sea; tee tea; bo above; glo believe; so so) as well as preceding velar consonants as codas (e.g. leeg empty; weeg to weigh; bleek pale; smeek to beg; boog bow; hoog high; ook also; rook to smoke).

In Standard Afrikaans /e/ tends to alternate with /i/, especially when in generally unaccented positions, but also when unstressed due to morphological alternation, for example in eties /e.tis/ ['e.tis] ethical (adj.) > etiek /e.'tik/ [i.'tik] ethics, and also especially in conversations, starting with Weet jy... /vet jəi/ [vit jəi]; that is in contrast to the ending of an utterance: ... (jy) weet. /jəi vet/ [jəi viət].

The /o/ functions similarly ( /o/ > [u]) Pretoria /pre.'to.ria/ [pre.to.ri.ɑ] [pri.'to.ri.jɑ] (place name; noun) > Pretoriaans /pre.to.ri.'ans/ [pri.tu.ri.'ans] Pretorian (adj.). In this example an instance of /e/ > [i] is also present. The /ø/ > [y] or unrounded [i] is also possible: Europa /ø.'ro.pɑ/ [y/i.'ro.pɑ] Europa.

Note that in all cases the phonetic diphthongal variants may eventually be accepted as phonemic. That means that phonological transcriptions such as /e.tis/ will change to [iə.tis].

[+]Vowel lowering

In similar conditions as pointed out in the case of heightening, /o/ and /e/ are lowered, respectively, to [ɔ] and [ɛ]. An example of /o/ > [ɔ] is in the first syllable of: professor /pro.'fɛ.sɔr/ > prof [prɔf] (abbrev. of professor). While the vowel of profeet /pro.fet/ (altermating with [u]) may be long [o], in the derived form professie it is more likely to lower to [ɔ].

Probably due to the scarcity of words with /ø/ as vowel, no cases of lowering exists.


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. Nasalisation is present in words with /e/, /ø/ and /o/ too, though on a lesser scale (Coetzee 1977). See also Nasalisation.

/e/: weens /vens/ [vẽ:s] due to

/ø/: Theuns /tøns/ [tø ~ :s] pers. name

/o/: Adoons /ɑ.dons/ [ɑ.'dõ:s] pers. name


The two commonly existing vowels, /e/ and /o/, are present in all syllable positions in Afrikaans, as nuclei in onsetless syllables as well as in t syllables preceded by at most three consonants. They may be followed by codas of up to three consonants, though not by CC clusters made up of two non-coronals such as in Dutch. Thus eend duck and oond oven but *eemp, *oomp .

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  • Combrink, J.G.H. & De Stadler, L.G1987Afrikaanse fonologie.Macmillan
  • De Villiers, M. & Ponelis, F.A1987Afrikaanse klankleer.Tafelberg
  • De Villiers, M. & Ponelis, F.A1992Afrikaanse klankleer.Tafelberg
  • Le Roux, T.H. & Pienaar, P. de V1927Afrikaanse fonetiek.Juta
  • Le Roux, T.H. & Pienaar, P. de V1927Afrikaanse fonetiek.Juta
  • Van Rensburg, M.C1981Aspekte van die verhoging van vokale in Afrikaans.Acta Academica. Reeks B2118-152,
  • Wissing, D2011Ontronding in Afrikaans / Derounding in Afrikaans.Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe511-20,
  • Wissing, Daan2017FonologieVan Schaik
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