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Long and short monophthongs

This section gives an overview of the reasons for distinguishing short and long vowels. These are

  1. that phonetic measurements show a difference in duration and frequency values, and
  2. that there are pairs of words with a different meaning which only differ as to the length of their vowels.


Since Frisian has short and long monophthongs, the dimension of vowel length must be accounted for (see Odden (2011) on this dimension in general). There need not be a one-to-one relation between the phonological length of a vowel and its actual phonetic duration. The latter is highly variable, dependent as it is on parameters such as speech rate and speech style. Be that as it may, phonetic measurements — see Graaf (1985) — reveal that an average the short monophthongs have a duration of 116 milliseconds, whereas this is 250 milliseconds for the long ones: the latter have a mean duration which is more than twice as long as that of the former. The short monophthongs are also realized with lower frequency values for both the first and second formant, which implies that they occupy a more central position in the vowel space.

The above is a first reason for distinguishing short from long vowels. But there is also a compelling, purely phonological, reason to do so. There are pairs of words with a different meaning which only differ in vowel length; this means that the vocalic length differences are exploited to create phonological oppositions or, put differently, that they figure in lexical contrasts. Contrasting morpheme pairs for each vowel pair are listed below:

Table 1
/a/ /a:/
smak/smak/smack smaak/sma:k/taste
bar/bar/turn baar/ba:ar/billow

Table 2
/ɛ/ /ɛ:/
wer/vɛr/again wêr/vɛ:r/where
tred/trɛd/thirdly trêd/trɛ:d/pace
fest/fɛst/waistcoat fêst/fɛ:st/fixed; firm; tight
test/tɛst/test, check têst/tɛ:st/fire-pan, coal pan

Table 3
/ɔ/ /ɔ:/
ban/bɔn/ban bân/bɔ:n/tyre
sot/sɔt/crazy, mad sâlt/sɔ:t/salt
stal/stɔl/shape stâl/stɔ:l/stable, shed
kat/kɔt/cat kâlt/kɔ:t/conversation
grot/ɡrɔt/cave grôt/ɡrɔ:t/pearl barley
hof/hɔv/court hôf/hɔ:v/orchard; graveyard

Table 4
/ɪ/ /e:/
skil/skɪl/shell grit skeel/ske:l/dispute
lid/lɪd/member leed/le:d/sorrow
prik/prɪk/pricker preek/pre:k/sermon
rip/rɪp/rack reep/re:p/strip
witt(e)/vɪt/to know weet/ve:t/wheat

Table 5
/ø/ /ø:/
nuk/nøk/mood, quirk neuk(e)/nø:k/to fuck
nul/nøl/zero neul(e)/nø:l/to tarry
rukk(e)/røk/to manage reuk/rø:k/smell
nut/nøt/use, value neut/nø:t/corbel

Table 6
/o/ /o:/
lok/lok/bliss, joy look/lo:k/kind of wooden connecting piece
doch/doɣ/to do (present tense stem) dog(e)/do:ɣ/be good
bom/bom/bomb boom/bo:m/bottom

Table 7
/i/ /i:/
tyk/tik/tick tiik/ti:k/mattress cover, pillow-slip
krych/kriɣ/to get (preterite stem) kriich/kri:ɣ/pith, zip
syk(je)/sik/to look for siik/si:k/ill

Table 8
/y/ /y:/
tút/tyt/kiss tút/ty:t/spout

Table 9
/u/ /u:/
bûk/buk/belly boek/bu:k/beech
poep/pup/crap, shit poep/pu:p/kraut, Hun
hoes/huz/(record) sleeve, dust cover hûs/hu:z/house
soes/suz/choux pastry (case) sûs/su:z/drowse, doze
kroes/kruz/mug kroes/kru:z/frizzy
dûk(e)/duk/to dive doek/du:k/to dive (preterite stem)
For some vowel pairs there are not many contrasting pairs of morphemes — those with /ɛ/ - /ɛ:/, /ɔ/ - /ɔ:/, /ø/ - /ø:/, /o/ - /o:/, /i/ - i: , /y/ - /y:/, and /u/ - /u:/ are exhaustive lists. This may be due to the large number of monophthongs in the first place. Besides, fricatives by and large display a complementary distribution in that voiceless ones follow 'something short', whereas voiced ones greatly prefer to follow 'something long' (see the place of the fricatives in the syllable rhyme). This means that minimal pairs with fricatives only occur in case one member of the pair contains a voiced fricative preceded by a short vowel (a voiceless fricative preceded by a long vowel hardly occurs). Finally, there is a great deal of dialectal variation in Frisian, which blurs the picture. For instance, in some dialects dûk(e)/duk/to dive and doek/du:k/cloth constitute a contrasting pair, but in others, where doek has a short vowel, they are homophones.

Instead of the symmetrical system of nine short and nine long vowels (monophthongs) above, which is generally adopted in Frisian phonology, De Haan (1999) proposes an alternative, asymmetrical system.

  • Graaf, Tseard de1985Phonetic aspects of the Frisian vowel systemNowele523-40
  • Haan, Germen J. de1999Frisian monophthongs and syllable structureUs Wurk4819-30
  • Odden, David2011The representation of vowel lengthOostendorp, Marc et al. (ed.)The Blackwell Companion to Phonology1Wiley-Blackwell465-490
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