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Palatalisation of velar (or further back) consonants /k/, /x/ and the glottal /ɦ/ in onset position to allophonic [j], /c/, /ç/ when followed by a high vowel (especially the high front [i] vowel), occurs readily in Afrikaans. Furthermore, the alveolar /s/ in coda position tends to change to the allophone [ʃ] under the influence of [j]. One of the foci here is on a fairly recent development, in which /s/ under the influence of preceding /r/ tends to change into the palatal [ʃ] too.


Firstly, we offer here an account of the well-known cases of regressive coarticulatory palatalisation (A), followed by the special case of progressive coarticulation (B). For A, also consult Le Roux and Pienaar (1927), Coetzee (1992), Combrink and De Stadler (1987), De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) and Wissing (1982) , (2017) for B, see Wissing (1982), Wissing, Pienaar and Van Niekerk (2015), and Wissing (2017).

[+]A. Palatalisation as a result of regressive coarticulation

  1. Plosive:
    1. [c ] < /k/: keer /ker/ [ciər] times, occasion
  2. Fricatives:
    1. [ç] < /x/: gee /xe/ [çiə] to give
    2. [j] < /ɦ/: heers /ɦers/ [jiərs] to reign
  3. More examples:
    1. [c] < /k/: keel; kees; keur; keuse; kies; bietjie; bakkie
    2. [ç] < /x/: besighede; diegene; geel; geen; gees; gier; regering; RSG; NG Kerk
    3. [j] < /ɦ/: heel; heerlik; Here; hier
  1. All of these cases involve fronting of a back consonant under the influence of [i], either the pure front vowel /i/, spelled ie in kies choose, gier fad, hier here, or secondary [i] as first segment of [iə] < /e/, as in keel throat, or of [iə] < /ø/, as in keuse choice. besighede /besəxɦedə/ [biəsəçiədə] businesses (plural form of besigheid /besəxɦəid/ [biəsəxɦəit]) constitutes an interesting case. /x/ in the phonetic form [biəsəxɦəit] is not influenced by palatalisation, but in the plural form [biə.sə.çiə.də], the /ɦ/ has been deleted and resyllabification takes place, causing /x/ to occupy the onset position of the syllable followed by the palatalisation triggering vowel [iə], rendering [çiə].
  2. The process of palatalisation is quite common. As a representative example, the onset fricative /x/ in geen /xen/ none occurred 25 times out of 61 cases in a search in the RSG database, i.e. RAP = 0.41.

    The words bakkie bowl and bietjie a bit need special attention. While in the other examples the affected consonant occurs in the onset position of words, here it is in the onset of a non-word initial syllable, respectively /bɑ.ki/ [bɑ.ci] and /bi.ki/ [bi.ci]. Le Roux and de Villiers Pienaar (1950) in their pronunciation dictionary of Afrikaans give only the non-palatalised [bɑki], but both [biki] and [bici]. De Villiers (1961) contends that there is no difference between kie and tjie as to their pronunciation; both should be transcribed with [ci]. This is an acceptable proposition in light of the strong coarticulatory influence of following palatal-like [i], similar to that found in e.g. kies above.

  3. Palatalisation also occurs in non-word-initial position in cases other than in diminutives, as in energie , tegnologie , virologie (all found in the RSG database).
  4. The acronym RSG , the South African national Afrikaans radio broadcaster – is pronounced with or without palatalised G, thus as either [ær ɛs xiə] or [ær ɛs çiə]. /x/ in the frequently used abbreviation NG (-kerk) NG Church is also regularly palatalised to [ɛn çiə].

In the following figures, the pronunciation of the three velar consonants without and with palatalisation is demonstrated. Listen to these words when palatalised:

Figure 1: Palatalisation of voiceless velar consonant /k/ in keer /ker/. A: [kiər]; B: [ciər]

[click image to enlarge]
  1. The unpalatalised plosive [k] in A clearly shows the typical characteristics of a voiceless velar consonant: a silent portion (enclosed in yellow), a release burst plus a shortish positive VOT (in brown). In contrast to this, [c] (in green) shows fricative features, as seen in the energy present in the higher spectral region, which is absent in the corresponding region in [k]. Note also the absence of a release burst in [c].

Figure 2: Palatalisation of the voiceless velar consonant /x/ in geen /xen/. A: [xiən]; B: [çiən]

[click image to enlarge]
  1. Here the unpalatalised fricative [x] in A has different acoustic features (visible striations in both the oscillogram and the spectrogram) than [ç] in B (smoother energy in the spectrogram portion than in [x]).

Figure 3: Palatalisation of the voiceless velar consonant /ɦ/ in heers /ɦers /. A: [ɦiərs]; B: [jiərs]

[click image to enlarge]

[+]B. Palatalisation as a result of progressive coarticulation

A notable sound change regarding the voiceless fricative /s/, when following the rhotic consonant /r/, was first reported by Wissing et al. (2015). This alveolar fricative is frequently palatalised, especially in the language usage of young millenials at the beginning of the 21st century. The product of this phonological process is the palatalallophone [ʃ], to be observed in the following structures:

  • Coda clusters ( rs), e.g. in bars /bɑrs/ [bɑrʃ] burst
  • Bimorphemic context r+s), e.g. in voorsien /fuər.'sin/ [fuər.'ʃin] provide
  • Bisyllabic context ( r$s), e.g. in verseker /fər.'sekər/ [fər.'ʃiə.kər] ensure
  • Phrases ( r#s), e.g. in is reeds /əs rets/ [əʃ riəts] is already

In Figure 4, in the word verseker, an unpalatalised [s] is compared to a palatalised /ʃ/.

Listen to the sound:

Figure 4: Oscillograms and spectrograms of verseker /fərsekər/ A: [fərsiəkər]; B: [fərʃiəkər]. Centre of Gravity is indicated in Hz.

[click image to enlarge]

A was recorded 15 years prior to B. As can be seen, in A a much higher Centre of Gravity is present i.e. 6,578 Hz vs. 4,088 Hz for B. The study by Wissing et al. (2015) revealed that in especially the pronunciation of young, white Afrikaans speakers /s/ is often subject to progressive palatalisation when preceded by /r/ in the coda cluster /rs/, and, to a lesser extent, in other contexts where /r/ is involved, for example across syllable and word boundaries. Only a slight presence of palatalisation was detected in the production of older white speakers. This finding might be indicative of a definite change in the Afrikaans fricative system.

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