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The unrounded low back vowel /ɑ/

The unrounded low back B-class vowel /ɑ/ is found in words such as:

Example 1

a. zat /zɑt/ drunk
b. pan /pɑn/ pan
c. val /vɑl/ trap

It is invariably spelled with a single letter <a>.

Figure 1(cf. Gussenhoven 1992) depicts the position of this (Dutch) vowel within the vowel chart.

Figure 1: Vowel chart

[click image to enlarge]

/ɑ/ is an unrounded, low, back, B-class vowel. There is jaw opening and a relatively neutral tongue position. The tip of the tongue may touch the back of the lower teeth (Collins and Mees 2003;Eijkman 1937). /ɑ/ is nasalised before nasal consonants, raised and centralised before velars, and lengthened and centralised before /r/(Collins and Mees 2003).

/ɑ/ is phonetically short (Adank et al. 2004), but has a lengthened allophone before /r/. Absolute duration varies with the type of speech and speaking rate, but reported average durations have ranged from 81 ms (Van Son and Pols 1990) to 108 ms (Rietveld et al. 2004), both in elicited read speech.

[+]Acoustic properties of /ɑ/

Formant values vary with the type of speech, gender of the speaker, and speech community (the Netherlands or Flanders). Below are some reported average F1/F2 values.

Table 1
F1 mixed female male
Netherlands 665 762 679
653 758 639
Flanders 632 725 555
Table 2
F2 mixed female male
Netherlands 1197 1117 1051
1214 1280 1292
Flanders 1179 1262 1066

Table 3: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Northern Standard Dutch /ɑ/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectrogram
iemand die tot zijn nek in het bad zat somebody who was sitting up to his chin in the bathtub pre-obstruent
[click image to enlarge]
de grote pan met stamppot the big pan with stew pre-sonorant
[click image to enlarge]
haar val uit het raam her downfall out of the window pre-liquid
[click image to enlarge]
Table 4: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Southern Standard Dutch /ɑ/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectrogram
om te controleren of hij nog zat to control if he was still sitting pre-obstruent
[click image to enlarge]
in de grote pan in the big pan pre-sonorant
[click image to enlarge]
als een rat in de val like a rat in the trap pre-liquid
[click image to enlarge]

[+]Phonological analysis of /ɑ/

A possible feature specification of /ɑ/ is -high, +low, -tense, -round, +back.

/ɑ/ as a B-class vowel
The vowel /ɑ/ alternates with the mid A-class vowel /a/ in some singular-plural paradigms, shown in 1a and 1b respectively:

Example 2

a. bad [bɑt] bath
b. baden [badən] baths

This process is not productive in modern Dutch, and usually seen as a remnant of a process of Open Syllable Lengthening in older stages of Dutch. It is also assumed that the ɛ is the original vowel in these cases (or the underlying one). In some analyses, the difference between /ɑ/ and /e/ is assumed to be one of length rather than tenseness for this reason.

Relation to /a/
From the argument above, it follows in any case that /a/ and /ɑ/ differ only in whatever feature it is that distinguishes A- from B-class vowels. However, in this particular case, the vowels seem closer to each other than other pairs of A- and B-class vowels. For instance we find variation that is not otherwise attested in such pairs. E.g.:

Example 3

Canada [kanada]  / [kɑnadɑ]  / [kɑnɑda]  / [kɑnɑdɑ]  , [*kanadɑ]  , [*kanɑdɑ]

This variation is at least partially regional and has not been seriously studied; it seems to us for instance, that /ɑ/ at the end of the word is only found in Flanders. What exactly determines the reason why some a’s can be realized as [ɑ]'s or vice versa, whereas others cannot, is not clear.

Also otherwise, the two vowels seem sometimes to change position. For instance, the generalization that intervocalic fricatives are voiced after a tautomorphemic A-class vowel and voiceless after a B-class vowel has exceptions exactly with this pair:

Example 4

a. mazzel [mɑzəl] good luck
b. Pasen [pasən] Easter
  • Adank, Patti, Hout, Roeland van & Smits, Roel2004An acoustic description of the vowels of Northern and Southern Standard DutchJournal of the Acoustical Society of America1161729--1738
  • Collins, B. & Mees, I2003The Phonetics of English and DutchLeidenE.J. Brill
  • Collins, B. & Mees, I2003The Phonetics of English and DutchLeidenE.J. Brill
  • Eijkman, L.P.H1937Phonetiek van het NederlandsHaarlemDe Erven F. Bohn N.V.
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos1992DutchJournal of the International Phonetic Association2245-47
  • Rietveld, Toni, Kerkhoff, Joop & Gussenhoven, Carlos2004Word prosodic structure and vowel duration in DutchJournal of Phonetics32349-371
  • Son, Rob J. J. H. van & Pols, Louis C. W1990Formant frequencies of Dutch vowels in a text, read at normal and fast rateJournal of the Acoustical Society of America881683-1693