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Length variation of low back vowels /ɑ/ and /a/

There exists a considerable degree of variation between the two Afrikaans low back vowels, short /ɑ/ and long /a/. This phenomenon is the topic of this section.


Some attention has been given in the literature on Afrikaans phonology to the interplay between the short and the long low back vowels /ɑ/ and /a/. Le Roux and Pienaar (1927) focus on variation regarding the pronunciation of lexical items, for example the vowel in the first syllable of artappel /'ɑrtɑpəl/ potato which might be short or long depending on the speaker. Furthermore, short /ɑ/, in some singular nouns, such as gat /xɑt/ hole, becomes long in the plural gate. De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) describe the alternation between /a/ of banaal /bɑnal/ [bɑ'na:l] banal and banaliseer /bɑnɑliseer/ [bɑnɑli'siər] banalise as vowel shortening. A well-known case of morphonological lengthening of /ɑ/ to [a:] is seen in, for example, the plural form of words ending in g /x/, e.g. in dag /dɑx/ day > /daə/ ['daʱə].

The word drama drama and its derivations gives a comprehensive overview of possible length variation in this regard. In the singular, plural and diminutive forms the vowel of the first syllable is accented and long /a/, while the second syllable's vowel is short /ɑ/, rendering the following phonological and phonetic analyses: SGdrama /dramɑ/ ['dra:mɑ]; PLdramas /'dramɑs/ [dra:mɑs]; DIMdramatjie /dramɑki/ ['dra:mɑci]. On the other hand, in the derived adjectival form dramaties /drɑmatis/ [drɑ'ma:tis] dramatical the now unstressed first syllable's vowel is shortened, while the now stressed second syllable's vowel is lengthened. Finally, both vowels are unstressed and thus short in the verbal form of drama, viz. dramatiseer dramatise, rendering [drɑmɑti'siər].

In the following sections more examples of these types of length variation are given.

[+] /a/ > [ɑ] in derivations

Vowel shortening of this type is the result of the addition of a bound morpheme at the right edge of a base word, thus deriving a suffixed word (see the topic on suffixation for details). Relevant are the category-determining processes of nominalization, verbalization and adjectivalization. Category-neutral processes are also possible, though not as creative. Note that in all the examples mentioned here long /a/ is stressed, while its replacement, short [ɑ], is unstressed – stress shifts are to the word-final morphemes in all instances.

  1. Nominalisation: The stress-bearing suffix -is (and its plural -ici), e.g. finalis [finɑ'ləs] finalist, from finaal /final/ final. More examples of this type are: globaal > globalis; ideaal > idealis; liberaal > liberalis; lojaal > lojalis; minimaal > minimalis; nasionaal > nasionalis; provinsiaal > provinsialis; radikaal > radikalis; sentraal > sentralis; sosiaal > sosialis; totaal > totalis.
  2. Verbalisation: The suffix -iseer, with stress on final syllable: hospitaliseer [ɦɔspitɑli'siər] hospitalise, from hospitaal /ɦɔspital/ hospital. More examples: globaal > globaliseer; ideaal > idealiseer; kanaal > kanaliseer; kapitaal > kapitaliseer; lateraal > lateraliseer; maksimaal > maksimaliseer; minimaal > minimaliseer; nasionaal > nasionaliseer; normaal > normaliseer; optimaal > optimaliseer; radikaal > radikaliseer; rasionaal > rasionaliseer; sentraal > sentraliseer; sosiaal > sosialiseer; totaal > totaliseer; vandaal > vandaliseer.
  3. Adjectivalisation: The suffix -isties, with stress on -is-: idealisties [idiʲɑ'listis] idealistic, from ideaal /idial/ ideal. More examples: kannibaal > kannibalisties; kapitaal > kapitalisties; minimaal > minimalisties; nasionaal > nasionalisties; radikaal > radikalisties; rasionaal > rasionalisties; sentraal > sentralisties; sosiaal > sosialisties; totaal > totalisties.
  1. Other cases of nominalisation include: the stress-bearing suffix -isme (and its plural -ismes), e.g. barbarisme [bɑrbɑ'rəsmə] barbarism, from barbaar /barbar/ barbarian. Cases like orgaan > organisme and vandaal > vandalisme are category-neutral, in that both forms are nouns, whereas humaan > humanisme and sosiaal > sosialisme are category-changing (adjectives > nouns).
  2. Although not as productive, -iteit, which derives a few nouns from adjectives, has an equivalent effect: finaal >finaliteit; geniaal > genialiteit; lojaal > lojaliteit; lokaal > lokaliteit; munisipaal > munisipaliteit; nasionaal > nasionaliteit; vitaal > vitaliteit. The two instances of moraal > moraliteit and totaal > totaliteit are category-neutral (nouns).
  3. A number of diverse, idiosyncratic cases of /a/ > [ɑ] include basis > baseer; blaam > blameer; frase > fraseer; graad > gradeer; panies > paniek; parade > paradeer; sigaar > sigaret.
  4. There is clear acoustic evidence for said vowel shortening. For example, the duration of stressed [a:] in the word munisipale /mynisipalə/ [mynisi'pa:lə] municipal as measured in 16 repetitions, read by ten male and female RSG presenters, is on average 129 ms, whereas the same vowel in munisipaliteit /mynisipalitəit/ [munisipɑli'təit] municipality is reduced to only 51 ms (in 18 repetitions). These values are in line with the statistics mentioned for long and short [a:] and [ɑ] elsewhere (in the context /s_s/, read in a word-list: 187 ms for [a:]; 81 ms for [ɑ]). In both instances long /a/ is about 60% longer than short [ɑ].
  5. The suffix -aan is quite common in deriving geographical person names of common gender, especially if the base name ends in -a, which gets deleted. Therefore, although Amerika and Kuba end on short -a in Afrikaans, the derived Amerikaan < Amerika and Kubaan < Kuba are not considered to be cases of vowel lengthening. Consult the topic on the nominal suffixes -iaan, -aan for a similar situation in Dutch (but note that -a is assumed to be long in open syllables, as in Amerika)
  6. A special category of shortening from /a/ to [ɑ] includes words of extremely high frequency of use: aan; gaan; graag; laat; maar; kwaai; waai. This is, in particular, to be observed in complex words with daar as the first component without stress (e.g. in daarenteen and daarsonder) (cf. Coetzee (1989)).

[+] /ɑ/ > [a:] in words with /x/ as coda

The product of this morphonological process has been lexicalised in Afrikaans, and is observable in a small number of nouns, viz. plurals of words of the type dag /dɑx/ day > /daə/ ['daʱə]. More examples: aanslag > aanslae; bedrag > bedrae; grondslag > grondslae; middag > middae; plaag > plae; slag > slae; verdrag > verdrae; verslag > verslae; vlag > vlae.

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