• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Saterfrisian
  • Afrikaans
Show all
/a/ rounding

A relatively new phonetic phenomenon in Afrikaans is /a/-rounding, whereby this long, low back vowel tends to shift not only further back, but also higher in the direction of the mid-low back vowel /ɔ/, rendering [ɒ:]. The same phenomenon is to be observed, albeit to a limited extent, in the case of the short low back vowel /ɑ/.


Apart from superficial references to the existence of /a/-rounding in textbooks such as that of De Villiers and Ponelis (1987), and Wissing (2006), provided the first systematic study of this fairly recent phenomenon in Afrikaans, followed up by Wissing (2014).

The presence of rounded [ɒ:] is most clearly present in the Afrikaans of young, female speakers. It does appear to be spreading at a rather noticeable pace across the broader Afrikaans speaking community. The rounding of the /a/ is largely absent in the pronunciation of Coloured speakers. Stressed /a/ in either open or closed syllables is likely to be rounded more readily than /a/ in unstressed position. Wissing (2014) highlights the rounding of the short low back vowel /ɑ/ when followed by the lateral consonant [l].

[+]Phonetics of rounded [ɒ:]

Both the articulatory and acoustic features of rounded [ɒ:] are notably different from those of the basic, non-rounded /a/. The lips are rounded slightly, thus not spread or relaxed. This vowel is, furthermore, formed with the tongue in a slightly higher position than for normal [a:] (creating a lower F1-value), while, at the same time, the tongue body is somewhat more retracted (causing a lower F2-value), rendering a vowel that, in extreme cases, sounds much like a lengthened version of the mid-low back vowel /ɔ/. Typical formant measurements in the case of prolific rounders were registered as follows for the vowels in words such as gaan /xan/ [xɒ:n] go: F1 = 500 – 600 Hz; F2 = 900 – 1000 Hz, compared to those of a clear non-rounder: F1 = 750 – 850 Hz; F2 = 1150 – 1250 Hz (cf. Wissing 2006). Associated measurements in the case of a group of twenty elderly speakers (average age 86 years; see Wissing (2012) indicates a definite absence of roundedness. Their F2 values (average of 1352 Hz) approximates that of the non-rounder just mentioned. Importantly, there is practically no difference between the F2 of their /a/'s and that of their short [ɑ]'s. Large differences between these two vowels are evident in the case of /a/-rounders, and is an important feature of the vowel systems of such rounders. In the case of twenty young, white, female speakers, Wissing (2013) reports F2-values of 1260 Hz for their short /ɑ/, but only 1035 Hz for the long /a/-vowel. These results contrast clearly with the F2-measurements of twenty young, coloured females, who had an average of around 1400 Hz for both of these vowels.

The included sound file clearly demonstrates the rounded character of long /a/ in maar /mar/ but as spoken by a young female (< 30 yrs) in contrast to that of an older female speaker (> 55 yrs).

[+]Rounding of short /ɑ/ > [ɒ]

When preceding the lateral consonant [l], in closed syllables (e.g. in wals /vɑls/ waltz) the short /ɑ/ tends to be rounded as well, rendering [vɒls]. Wissing (2014) reports F2 values of on average 1035 Hz for short /ɑ/ in syllables with /l/ as coda, and a similar value (F2 = 934 Hz) for long /a/ in the same phonetic context. According to these values the rounded, short [ɒ] is somewhat less rounded than the long /a/ as in maar /mar/ [mɒ:r] but, though still clearly different to the basic unrounded short /ɑ/ vowel in contexts other than /l/, as in mas /mɑs/ [mɑs] mast. The average F2 of /ɑ/ in words like mas equals 1250 Hz; for words with the rounded long /a/ in closed syllables it is 1009 Hz. A similar difference was found in the case of open syllables (Wissing 2014).

[+]Genadendal Afrikaans

Genadendal Afrikaans is an important sub-variety of Cape Afrikaans. As far as the production of /a/ is concerned, it could be taken as prototypical of other varieties spoken by coloured Afrikaans speakers. According to Wissing (2017), this vowel is not rounded at all; similar to short /ɑ/, it is typically a neutral vowel, produced in the region of (though lower than) schwa, as is evident from the F2-values which are 1581 Hz ( [a]) and 1669 Hz ( [ɑ]), as produced by eight speakers, four young and four old. Note that the two vowels lie close to each other in acoustic vowel space regardless of the age of the speaker.

[+]A case of sound change?

All the above-mentioned demonstrates an ongoing change in the Afrikaans vowel system. Overall, the rounded characteristic of especially the long /a/ vowel is clearly present in the production of speakers of the most recent generation, notably younger, white, female speakers of Afrikaans. This finding might be taken as supportive of the postulation of a modern variety of Afrikaans. See further commentary of this issue in a broader context in Wissing (2017).

    printreport errorcite