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The short vowels of Afrikaans

The Afrikaans vowels /ɛ/, /ɔ/, /ɑ/, /œ/, /ə/, /i/, /u/ and /y/ are generally taken to be short, contrary to the long vowels /a/, /e/, /o/ and /ø/ and diphthongs. Note that this is contrary to the general position in the case of Dutch in two ways: we count schwa, /ə/, as a full vowel in Afrikaans, and, /i/, /u/ and /y/ are regarded as short. See also the following topics on individual short vowels:

The following articles should be taken into account as important background information:

  • Concerning the criteria for classifying words as monomorphemes: Background to primary stress of Afrikaans monomorphemes.
  • Concerning the general stress pattern of Afrikaans monomorphemes: Overview of main stress.
  • By way of orientation with respect to all topics concerning stress placement in Afrikaans monomorphemes, the following reference list should be consulted:

    (De Stadler 1981; Combrink and De Stadler 1987; De Stadler 1991; De Villiers 1965; De Villiers and Ponelis 1992; Lee 1963; Le Roux 1936; Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Lubbe 1993; Wissing 1971; Wissing 1987; Wissing 1988; Wissing 1989; Wissing 1991; Wissing 2017)


As mentioned above, schwa /ə/ is generally acknowledged as a full vowel phoneme in Afrikaans (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; De Villiers 1949; Wissing 1971; Coetzee 1981; Combrink and De Stadler 1987). In this regard, it is worth comparing minimal pairs such as pit /pət/ do. and put /pœt/ well, or dit /dət/ it and dut /dœt/ sleep. Although not in monomorphemic words, it is notable that schwa also carries main stress in derivations with the affix -in: kelnerin /kɛl.nə.'rən/ waitress, and in -is: pianis /pi.ɑ.'nəs/ pianist. Schwa also frequently functions as the plural morpheme, as in boek-e book-s as well as the predicative adjectival morpheme e.g. in groen-e green-s.

A schwa may occur in all syllable nuclei positions, unstressed as well as stressed, in open as well as closed syllables. It occurs frequently in word-final position, whereit is always unstressed.

Compare the following examples of schwa and short /ɑ/:

Syllable stress /ə/ and /ɑ/
Table 1: Syllable stress /ə/ and /ɑ/
Example /ə/ Analysis Example /ɑ/ Analysis
In onsetless open syllable (stressed): innig /'ə.nəx/ akker /'ɑ.kər/
In onsetless closed syllable (unstressed): intens /ən.'tɛns/ aspris /ɑs.'prəs/
In open syllable with onset (stressed): binne /'bə.nə/ baster /'bɑs.tər/
In open syllable with onset (unstressed): beneweld /bə.'ne.vəld/ banana /bɑ.'na.nɑ/
In word-end position (unstressed): bode /'bod.də/ banana /bɑ.'na.nɑ/

  1. Forms in slashes are phonemic; the relevant vowels are underlined; stressed vowels are indicated by [a'], and syllable boundaries by a dot.
  2. Word final /d/ in beneweld devoices to [t] in word final context.

The short Afrikaans vowels, /i/, /y/, /u/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/, /ɑ/, /œ/ and /ə/ are all, unlike in Dutch, permitted to be stressed in open syllables in word-internal position. Compare the examples in the Extra below:

Short vowels in CV.CVC
Table 2: Short vowels in CV.CVC
Example Analysis
kielie /'ki.li/
nuwe /'ny.və/
koedoe /'ku.du/
lekker /'lɛ.kər/
boggel /'bɔ.xəl/
kaggel /'kɑ.xəl/
tussen /'tœ.sən/
bitter /'bə.tər/

Although all short vowels may occur in open syllables in word-final position, in which case they are always unstressed, this is especially frequent in the case of /ə/, /ɑ/, /i/ and /u/, as in the following representative examples:

Unstressed short vowels in word-final position
Table 3: Unstressed short vowels in word-final position
/ə/ /ɑ/ /i/ /u/
hitte abba kielie foto
kudde baba mielie koedoe
midde patatta karnalie saldo
periode jakaranda fermesellie makoekoe
verlede abrakadabra

  1. For the pronunciation of written o as [u] in open syllables word-finally, such as in foto, photo and in saldo do, see the discussion beneath.
  2. Only in a few cases is written o in this position long, and as such is pronounced as [uə] e.g. in buro, Karoo and tablo. 3. The short vowels /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ only occur in a very small number of words, frequently monosyllabic exclamations such as resp. , but recently also in quite a number of persons' and place names adopted from indigenous languages.
  3. The phoneme /y/ is restricted in this position too, e.g. in skadu.

[+]The special cases of /i/ and /u/ as short vowels of Afrikaans

Should /i/ and /u/ be regarded as long vowels, represented in a syllable tree by two slots, XX, a problem would be created for the analysis of both pure and unpure diphthongs. The pure diphthong /œu/, written as ou, ends in /u/, which if analyzed as having a s XX structure, would render the nucleus of the diphthong /œu/ as X X X, which is, of course, not allowed in view of the phonotactic constraint of nuclei existing of maximally two slots. The same problem is to be found in the case of unpure diphthongs, such as /aai/, /ooi/, /eeu/ and even /ui/. All of these would have X X X structures if /i/ and /u/ were regarded as long. A similar situation is pointed out by Visser in the case of Frisian.

Unlike the way in which Dutch vowels are treated, Afrikaans has numerous normal words ending in unstressed, short /i/ and /u/ vowels, e.g. balie, bietjie, boelie, kielie, mielie and lelie, resp. boegoe, ghoeroe, koedoe and Zoeloe, that is, with orthograpical oe, but also in most words ending with o, such as avokado, bruto, fiasko, kommando, transito and video (see Short -oe in monomorphemes).

Afrikaans is characterised by an extremely productive morphonemic process of diminutive suffixation, with all allomorphs ending in short /i/, viz, -ie, -pie, -kie, -tjie and -etjie. Strikingly -etjie is normally pronounced with two short /i/'s: [iki], or [ici]. These allomorphs have as equivalent the Dutch allomorphs -je, -pje, -kje, -tje and -etje, all with final schwa (Booij 1995).

Cases where /i/ and /u/ as stem vowels behave like undisputed short vowels are in the formation of diminutives with -tjie. Examples are poel – poeletjie, smoel – smoeletjie, gevoel – gevoeletjie and karakoel – karakoeletjie; in these examples they behave exactly like other short vowels, for example bal – balletjie, pen – pennetjie, kol – kolletjie and pil – pilletjie. Further evidence comes from the different effects of the two diminutive morphemes -etjie and /-pie/. The former suffix requires a preceding short vowel plus final /m/ such as in kammetjie. Thus long vowels do not occur in this context, thus raam – raampie (*rametjie), boom – boompie (*bometjie) and probleem – probleempie (*problemetjie). The same applies to /u/ which of course s argues against /u/ belonging to the class of long vowels. Similar, though less compelling cases, relating to /i/ include, for example kiem – kiemetjie (*kiempie), siel – sieletjie and wiel – wieletjie (*wieltjie).

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology-morphology interfaceGlot International13-7
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