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/u/ centralization

This topic has, as theme, the recent tendency for Afrikaans-speakers to centralise the short, high, back, front, rounded vowel /u/.


Traditionally /u/ is characterised as a short, high, back, front, rounded vowel, situated in the uppermost right corner of the articulatory vowel chart, known as cardinal vowel number 8. Measurements of the duration of the word-list productions of ten words containing /u/ as vowel followed by the consonants /t/, /k/, /m/ and /n/, each repeated eight times, rendered an average of 114 ms, 23 ms shorter than the /ɔ/ vowel read in a similar way. Note, however, that /u/ is significantly lengthened when followed by /r/ – on average 249 ms, again measured in similar circumstances (for such a lengthening effect, read The lengthening effect of r).

As recently as 25 years ago, Van der Merwe et al. (1993) reported acoustical measurements for male speakers showing full-rounded high-back vowels (F1 = 266 Hz; F2 = 961 Hz), in line with the Dutch equivalent. Van Oostendorp and Sebregts reported average F1/F2 values of male speakers of 339 Hz (F1) and 810 Hz (F2) in the case of Northern Standard Dutch, and 266 Hz (F1) and 927 Hz (F2) in the case of Southern Standard Dutch (Flemish), the latter practically identical to that of the Afrikaans data mentioned above. Also see the topic on the Dutch rounded high back vowel /u/.

The following measurements were obtained by analysing the formant frequencies of the vowel /u/ in the productions of four prominent RSG news readers, one female and one male, aged 50 years plus at the time of recording (some 15 years ago), and one female and one male aged 35 years or younger, recorded during 2017. The results of the analysis are provided in the table below.

Average F1/F2 values for / u/ in soek as produced by four radio presenters
Table 1: Average F1/F2 values for / u/ in soek as produced by four radio presenters
F1 F2
Male S1 (2017) 311 1334
Male S2 (2000) 329 1175
Female S1 (2017) 374 1555
Female S2 (2000) 341 1335
  1. These results are representative of a general trend observable in these groups of news readers.
  2. The vowel /u/ was analysed in the word soek /suk/ [suk] look for; search, as well as complex words containing soek, e.g. aansoek, besoek, besoeke, besoeker, ondersoek, soektog, versoek as it appears in news bulletins, thus in running speech. /u/ is mostly in stressed position, and predominantly in closed syllables, ensuring a fairly balanced dataset. In the results of Van der Merwe et al. (1993), quoted higher-up, this is not the case; only single-syllabled words, in a carrier phrase, were read. Therefore a comparison of the two sets of results should be viewed in this light.
  3. As would be expected, the F2 values of the female speakers are somewhat higher than those of the males (differences of 10% – 15% are normal).
  4. The higher F2 values of both sets of the more recent recordings (2017), male as well as female, is in line with the increasing tendency to centralise of /u/, as mentioned in the introduction.

Wissing (2010) reports a number of general observations regarding factors that might influence centralization. Generally, vowels in words with a high frequency tend to centralise notably more than those in words with a low frequency. The same applies to vowels in secondarily emphasised accented positions in sentences. /u/ is more prone to this phenomenon in sentences than in words read in lists. Lastly, this relates more to vowels in open syllables than those in closed syllables. Only reading tempo did not show any differences. No difference was found as to degree of fronting between slow versus fast reading.

In the following sound file the difference between a centralised and a non-centralised vowel is evident:

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