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The vowel system of Afrikaans

Afrikaans has twelve phonemic vowels, four long (or tense) and eight short (or lax) and three pure diphthongs.


    Here we give a short overview of the Afrikaans vowels. They are dealt with elsewhere in more detail, with examples, viz in The Short Vowels, The Long Vowels and The Diphthongs.

    Long monophthongs in Afrikaans are /e/, /ø/, /o/ and /a/, while /i/, /y/, /u/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/, /ɑ/, /œ/ and /ə/ are generally considered to be short (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927; Coetzee 1981; De Villiers and Ponelis 1987; Combrink, De Stadler and Wissing 2014).

    An important difference to the vowel classification of Dutch is that, in Dutch, /i/, /u/ and /y/ are considered to be long phonemic vowels. Although phonetically regarded as short in Dutch, this classification is based on the distribution of these vowels, in some respects similar to that of the phonemically long vowels. Furthermore, it is striking that in Dutch the /a/-vowel is considered to be long in open syllables, including in word-final position and even in unstressed syllables, cf. the example /ə/. This is in contrast to the situation in Afrikaans: agenda [ɑ.'xɛn.dɑ] agenda. Long /a/ in Afrikaans only occurs in word-final (stressed) position, but seldomly (e.g. in karba /kɑr.'ba/, as well as in a number of monosyllabic words, such as ja, ma and pa, and dra, vra, the latter group derived from dragen, vragen).

    The diphtongs /œy/, /œu/ and /əi/ are considered to be the three pure, phonemic Afrikaans diphthongs. A number of unpure diphthongs also exist. Firstly, the long vowels /o/, /e/ and /a/ combine with /i/ and /u/ to create /oi/, /ai/ and /eu/. Secondly, short vowels strongly tend to diphthongise in duminutive words with a /(n)t/ coda, as in for instance pitjie [pəici] pit DIM or pintjie [pəiɲci] pint DIM. These nuclei /ɑi/, /ui/, /ɛi/, or /ɔi/, /œi/ and /əi/ are sometimes labeled unpure or untrue diphthongs.

    In The Short Vowels we deal with the acceptance of schwa /ə/ as a full vowel in Afrikaans. We also provide details about the other short vowels, especially /i/, /u/, /y/ and /ɑ/, these vowels being treated differently to the way they are done in the case of Dutch. We also focus on the fact that in Afrikaans the short vowels mentioned here are permitted to occur in open, stressed positions.

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