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Lowering of front mid vowel /ɛ/

The pronunciation of the vowel /ɛ/ constitutes a special ethnolectic and geolectic characteristic of Afrikaans. Especially in the northern parts of South Africa (former Transvaal and Free State), [æ] is an allophone of this vowel when preceding one of the coda consonants /k/, /x/, /l/ and /r/, while in other regions, predominantly the Cape Provinces, this is not precisely the case. On the other hand, this allophonic phenomenon is largely absent in the Afrikaans as spoken by most coloured speakers, irrespective of geographic region. Only in words containing /ɛ/ when followed by the lateral consonant /l/ is a lowered and palatalised version observed in their Afrikaans, roughly transcribed as [jæ].


The allophone [æ] of the mid-front vowel /ɛ/, when followed by /k/, is signalled as long ago as 1927 by Le Roux and Pienaar (1927) as restricted to the then Western Transvaal (part of the current North-West Province). They cite only two instances: lekker /lɛkər/ [lækər] nice and rekker /rɛkər/ [rækər] toy, but denote the onset consonants /l/ and /r/ as conditioning factor. Since then this phenomenon has seemingly expanded to a large extent. De Villiers (1970) and also De Villiers & Ponelis (1992) report this lowering effect in the general koine style over a large region of South Africa. Note, however, that it is widely held that it is generally accepted to be caused by the following consonants, as mentioned above. Wissing (2017a) gives a general overview of this process, and in Wissing (2017b) the presence of this type of lowering in Genadendal Afrikaans is described, as representative of Cape Afrikaans and as spoken by a the coloured inhabitants of Genadendal, Western Cape.

Some radio presenters of RSG exhibit an interesting phenomenon regarding the production of /ɛ/ in the above-mentioned context of /k/, /x/, /r/ and /l/. In short, they exclude /k/ as a lowering context. Thus lowering does happen in the words sleg /slɛx/ bad > [slæx], bel /bɛl/ ring > [bæl] and ster /stɛr/ star > [stær], but not in words like ek I. In Figure 1, the vowel portions of these words are shown. Note the difference between the formant tracks of the first three vowels [æ] compared to that of ek, which is [ɛ]; in fact, the quality of the latter approaches that of a high-front vowel [i]. This can clearly be heard in the following sound file of the four respective words, as read by one of these presenters:

Figure 1: The /ɛ/ vowel, as used by a radio presenter in the words sleg, bel, ster and ek
[click image to enlarge]

Listen to the following sound file:

Notably, this speaker is from Paarl, Western Cape, and, according to her own testimony, has never spent any significant periods of time outside of this region. A similar trend is to be observed in the case of some other speakers of this area. The resistance of /ɛ/ against lowering in this case might possibly be seen as a shibboleth of the Standard Afrikaans of Western Cape speakers.

In Table 1 more examples of these types are given.

Examples of lowered /ɛ/ in monosyllabic words
Table 1: Examples of lowered /ɛ/ in monosyllabic words
[-k] [-x] [-l] [-r]
ek eg bel blêr
bek heg fel der
dek leg hel her
gek reg lêl per
hek seg Nel ster
lek sleg rêl ter
nek veg sel ver
plek weg tel
rek vel
spek wel

  1. Most of these words are well-known, though not all are frequently used. Thus lêl lobe, rêl riot, der and ter are only used within fossilised expressions, resp. in der waarheid in truth and ter nouernood just in time. ter is also present in a couple of very commonly used word like terwyl while, where /ɛ/ is pronounced as schwa too, probably due to it occurring in an unstressed position (see the topic on vowel reduction).
  2. The letters of the alphabet L /ɛl/ [æl] and R /ɛr/ [ær] are pronounced accordingly, though not X /ɛks/. This is also the case with teks [tɛks] text. In contrast, heks /ɦɛks/ witch is [ɦæks] phonetically.
  3. The examples in 2 demonstrate a degree of unpredictability in the occurrence of allophonic variation. As is shown in 4, the degree of naturalization of words is sometimes an enhancing or restraining factor in terms of the application of this phonological process.
  4. Some loan words do not exhibit lowering, at least not in more educated speech, as in tjek [ʧɛk] – not [ʧæk], also not in seks sex, argitek architect, tegniek technique and derivations thereof, as well as the shop name Checkers.
  5. Interestingly, the production of teg- in tegniek and derivations seems to be in a state of flux, as is evident in the following observation in the RSG readings. Eleven instances of the non-lowered variant were found out of 27 occurrences of the words tegnici, tegnikus, tegnies(e) and tegnologie, mostly by older readers, perhaps indicative of an ongoing sound change.
  6. A similar situation is to be observed in most words of English origin that end in -ek -ect, e.g. affek, aspek, defek, effek, insek, korrek, perfek and projek all with /ɛ/. Here too, [æ] is mainly observed in the speech of less educated persons. The same possibly applies to words with consonant cluster codas, such as indeks, kompleks, konteks and korteks.
  7. A fairly recent distinctive property of the vowel /ɛ/ in the pronoun ek I is the extremely low [æ] – approaching [ɑ] – by, in particular, young speakers of the northern regions. This is in contrast to same-aged southern speakers, whose ek is typically produced with the high-mid front vowel [ɛ] (see discussion higher up). Such extreme lowering is, however, not restricted to pre-k; the same tendency is found before /x/, as in egter /ɛxtər/ however, which is in some cases even heard as [ɑxtər], nearly identical to agter behind.
  8. Lowering of /ɛ/ is present under the same circumstances in the suffix -êr (input category nouns; output category adjectives (see the topic on non-native affixes), as found in, amongst others, the following words: bipolêr; dissiplinêr; dokumentêr; intermediêr; komplementêr; leêr; miljoenêr; primêr; revolusionêr; sanitêr; tersiêr; vaskulêr. All of these ê vowels are stressed, and occur in closed syllables. But even in open syllables this phenomenon does occur, as is seen in derivations with the suffix -e in attributive adjectives like bipolêre [bi.pu.læ.rə].
  9. The vowels of the first syllable in persoon person and in persent percent are not always lowered, but often pronounced as schwa; on the other hand the relevant vowel of the derived forms persentasie percentage and personeel personnel is much less likely to be reduced to schwa, retaining a low [æ]. The reason for this situation could possibly be the influence of stress placement. While the relevant syllable in per- in persoon and persent is unstressed, that of personeel and persentasie carry secondary stress, with main stress on the last and penultimate syllable of these two words respectively (see the topic on vowel reduction). This observation leads to the conclusion that stress does, indeed, play a role in this type of vowel lowering, albeit only to a limited extent. Overall, it seems as if lowering of /ɛ/ is enhanced when carrying (primary) stress.
  10. The lowering of /ɛ/ to [æ] is not restricted to words with singleton consonant codas. Examples of consonant cluster codas conditioning this process are commonly found, e.g. -rd, -rf, -rg, -rk, -rp, -rs and -rt as in, respectively, werd, erf, erg, kerk, skerp, kers and stert. Note that in words like derm /dɛrm/ [dæ.rəm] intestine and kern /kɛrn/ [kæ.rən] kernal, the phonemic clusters /rm/ and /rn/ are phonetically decomposed to [rəm] [rən] via the phonological process of schwa insertion. In the latter type of word, the lowering influence is activated by [r] in the onset position of the adjacent syllable: [dæ.rəm], [kæ.rən].
  11. That the structure of the coda following /ɛ/ is not a relevant factor is demonstrated by forms with CCC-codas, as in the monomorphemes selfs even and herfs autumn, that surface as [sælfs] resp. [ɦærfs]. This process is also evident in derived forms like (iets) skerps something sharp and (iets) sterks something strong < skerp and sterk.

[+]Acoustic properties of vowels in two varieties

As stated above, ethnolectic and geolectic characteristics play a definite role in the occurrence of the lowering or not of /ɛ/ to [æ]. Figure 2 presents the measurements of the first formant, F1, of the productions of /ɛ/ by two prototypical speakers, viz. a white North-Eastern Afrikaans speaker (NEAfr.) and a coloured speaker, representing Cape Afrikaans (K-Afr.).

Figure 2: F1-measurements of typical /ɛ/ vowel, as spoken in the word ses /sɛs/ [sɛs] by both speakers, as well as werk, snelweg, trek (NEAfr.-speaker), and spel, ver, ek, berg (K-Afr.-speaker)
[click image to enlarge]

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