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The rounded high back vowel /u/

In the case of Afrikaans, /u/, together with /y, i, ɛ, ɔ, œ, ә, ɑ/ is classified as a short vowel. Treating /u/as a short vowel, in contrast to Dutch, is evident from (Le Roux and Pienaar 1927)(Le Roux and Pienaar 1927); (Van Wyk 1977)(Coetzee 1981); (De Villiers and Ponelis 1987)(De Villiers and Ponelis 1992); (Combrink and De Stadler 1987)(Combrink and De Stadler 1987);(Wissing 2014) . It is mostly short phonetically, and also clearly perceivable as such. In line with its characteristic weak articulatory setting , it is produced as more lax than its Dutch equivalent. Modern Afrikaans in particular shows a marked degree of centralisation.

Example 1

a. soen /sun/ [sun] kiss
b. koedoe /ku.du/ ['ku.du] / ['ku.du] kudu; antilope
c. oes /us/ [us] harvest

The Standard Afrikaans (SA) speaker referred to below is a prototypical standard speaker and a prominent radio personality. In a recent survey she was nominated as the most appropriate speaker of Standard Afrikaans. Participants (N = 344) in this survey were from all walks of life, male and female and of different ages and ethnicity groups /u/ of Standard Dutch (SD) is shown alongside that of SA. Vowel information with respect to Standard Dutch (SD) /u/ is to be found in Taalportaal.

Where relevant, acoustic vowel information on the Afrikaans as spoken in Genadendal, Western Cape (henceforth abbreviated as GA), will be provided. On the basis of its important role in the historical evolution of Afrikaans it will here be taken as a prototype of Standard Coloured Afrikaans SCA). There are, of course, many other variants of SCA . The GA data is based on recordings of a number of aged female speakers of that town .

[+] Articulation

/u/ is phonetically short. During its production the tongue body is to a degree retracted and raised with the tongue tip down. There is a reasonably large front cavity, but also a relatively large back cavity due to larynx lowering.

Figure 1 is an idealised depiction in an articulatory vowel-chart. See Figure 2 for a realistic acoustic representation.

Figure 1: IPA vowel chart. Idealised positions of Standard Afrikaans vowels are added.

Figure 1

[click image to enlarge]

Both alternate sets of tongue height positions are indicated: those in italics ( high - low) show the height of the tongue in relation to the oral cavity; those in normal letter type ( open - close) refer to the degree of openness of the mouth during pronunciation. The former set is used here and elsewhere.

[+] Acoustic features

The formant frequencies as well as the temporal values of vowels vary per speaker (age, gender), speech community, and also according to speech rate and style. The vowel duration and quality of /u/ tends to reduce in rapid speech and in informal style, thus generally becoming shorter and tending in the direction of schwa. In normal pronunciation, Afrikaans /u/ is characterised by a relatively high F2 i.e. it is often notably centralised.

[+] Temporal Values

/u/ is generally a short vowel phonetically, although mostly long before /r/. An average duration of 62 ms was found for the SA speaker, measured in the phonetic context s_s, read in a word-list style.

[+] Spectral Values

The following table and set of figures provide the formant features of the rounded close high /u/. In relevant cases information on Standard Dutch (SD) as well as SCA with be provided. . Vowel information with respect to SD was found in the description of Dutch /u/ : Taalportaal: Dutch.

[+] Acoustic plot

Figure 2 shows the position of /u/ relative to the other vowels of Standard Afrikaans.

Figure 2: Standard Afrikaans vowel chart, with /u/ highlighted. StD = Standard Dutch.

Figure 2

[click image to enlarge]

  1. the /u/ of Standard Afrikaans is encircled; that of Standard Dutch is indicated by the abbreviation StD + u. This Afrikaans vowel is situated in the upper-left corner of the chart; corresponding closely on an articulatory level to the close back vowel position in Figure 1.
  2. SD's /u/ lies somewhat higher than that of Afrikaans. The striking difference, however, is the much more backward position of the SD /u/, an indication of a more fully rounded quality. Afrikaans' /u/ is known for its definite centralised quality ((Wissing 2010)(Wissing 2011)), in line with a more lax articulation .
  3. Interestingly, the /u/ of SCA occupies a position that is practically identical to that of SD, viz 320 Hz in the case of F1, and a value of 842 Hz for F2. This is one of the more striking differences between the two Afrikaans standard varieties described here.

[+] Wave-form and spectrogram

Figure 3 shows the vowel /u/ as embedded in the nonsense form s_s, here /sus/[sus].

Figure 3: Wave form (A) of the nonsense words /sus/[sus] and its spectrograms (B).

Table 1
Sound Sound waves and spectrogram
[click image to enlarge]

Listen to the pronunciation of the two nonsense words that were used in producing the wave-form and the spectrogram.

[+] Formant plots

The formant track of especially F2 is rather unclear in this spectrogram and is therefore shown separately in Figure 4.

Table 1: Formant frequency values of /u/ in Standard Afrikaans and Standard Dutch. Values are in Hertz.

Figure 4

[click image to enlarge]

Figure 4: Formant plot of /u/.

Figure 5

[click image to enlarge]

F1 is the red track at the bottom of the figure, F2 is the green track (and F3 the black one at the top). According to this plot, /u/ is not a perfect monophthongal vowel, although there is no general climbing or dipping in the track, as is typical of diphthongs, or diphthongised vowels.

[+] Phonological analysis of /u/


A possible feature specification of /ɛ/  is +HIGH, -MID, +BACK, -TENSE,+ROUND.

/u/ has some distinct phonological characteristics, to be dealt with in the following sections.

[+] Lenghtening of /u/ before /r/

/u/, like /i/ and /y/, is lengthened considerably when followed by tautosyllabic /r/, as in boer/bur/[bu:r]farmer and loer/lur/[lu:r]lurk. Some exceptions do exist, for example hoer/hur/whore and oerwoud/ur.vœud/[ur.vœut]jungle .

[+] Nasalisation

Although nasalisation of all Afrikaans vowels has been a distinct characteristic of the vowel system for much of the last century (cf. Le Roux and Pienaar 1927) it seems to be much less the case in recent years, especially in the speech of younger persons. Practically no evidence is found in coloured varieties, as is evident in the pronunciation of Genadendal Afrikaans speakers.

As with other Afrikaans vowels, nasalisation happens mostly when /u/ is followed by the alveolar nasal /n/ + a fricative consonant, predominantly /s/ . Though not exclusively, nasalisation is more to be expected when the nasal is tautosyllabic. Obviously this applies to /u/ too, for example in Woensdag/vuns.dɑx/['vũ:s.dɑx]Wednesday.(Coetzee 1977)

[+] Diminutive formation and its importance for the phonotactics of /u/

Cases where /u/ as stem vowel behaves like other undisputed short vowels in the formation of diminutives with -etjie include poel - poeletjie, smoel - smoeletjie, gevoel - gevoeletjie, karakoel - karakoeletjie. Compare these, for example, with bal - balletjie, pen - pennetjie, kol - kolletjie, pil - pilletjie . Contrary to these examples, -etjie instead of -pie, as diminutive morpheme, is forbidden for words with long vowels plus final /m/ , thus raam - raampie (*rametjie); boom - boompie (*bometjie); probleem - probleempie (*problemetjie). This argues against /u/ belonging to the class of long vowels. Sheltko (Sheltko 2006) provides more examples in favour of such an interpretation in the case of the Dutch diminutive formation of words, with /u/ (together with /i/ and /y/) as base vowel. In this regard she finds support from De Haas and Trommelen (De Haas and Trommelen 1993). Of special importance here is the assertion of the latter authors that genuine long vowels are never, as here, ambiguous in nature ("echte lange klinkers (zijn) nooit zo ambigu ..." true long vowels are never ambiguous.

[+] The Phonotactics of /u/

The very uncommon occurrence of all long Afrikaans vowels (/o, e, a, ø/) in open, word-final position is in sharp contrast to the highly frequent occurrence of /u/ as well as most of the rest of the short vowels (/i, ə, ɑ/) in word-final open-syllable position. Here the uncontested short vowels /ɔ/ and /ɛ/ are the exception. These facts are taken as extra motivation for deeming /u/ as phonologically short.

Furthermore, by postulating that /u/, together with /i/, is a long vowel, thus occupying two syllable slots, X X, creates a problem with respect to the analysis of both pure and unpure diphthongs. Pure diphthongs (/əi, œy, œu/), all ending in /i/ or /u/, would, on this analysis, have a nucleus make-up of X X X, which is, of course, not allowed in view of the common phonotactic constraint of nuclei consisting of maximally two slots .

The same problem is to be found in the case of unpure diphthongs, such as /ai, oi, eu/ (in resp. raai, rooi, eeu) and even /ui/ (in roei). All of these would be, if /i/ and /u/ are long, (non-permitted) X X X nuclear structures. A similar problematic is pointed out by Visser in the case of Frisian . Note, however, that Booij (Booij 1995) resolves this situation by seeing these diphthongs as ending in /j/ instead of the /i/-vowel.

An interesting related phenomenon is the pronunciation of the /u/ vowel in word-final position, spelled <o>, as in foto above. Except for the clear short phonetic realisation , as in ['fo.tu], there are some compelling phonological and morphological reasons for taking this word-final vowel as short.

In these, and other similar cases, no derived words, such as plural forms, with long /o/, as in Dutch, are present, thus the plural and diminutive forms of these and similar words are still realised as short /u/. Consequently, the diminutive form of foto is /'fo.tuki/, not /*'fo.toki/. Other examples with word-final /u/ are: kommando, eggo, Outjo, risiko, sjello, dinamo, albino, tempo, Kaïro, kasso, Basoeto. Note again that this situation is in contrast with Dutch, where similar word-final vowels, spelled with "o" too, are considered to be long /o/.

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Lehiste, I. & Peterson, G. E1959Vowel amplitude and phoneme stress in American EnglishJournal of the Acoustical Society of America31428-435
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