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The unrounded low-mid front vowel /ɛ/
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The unrounded low-mid front B-class vowel /ɛ/ is found in words such as:

Example 1

a. zet /zɛt/ set
b. pen /pɛn/ pen
c. bel /bɛl/ bell

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

Figure 1(cf. Gussenhoven 1992) depicts the (Dutch) vowel's position within the vowel chart.

Figure 1: Vowel chart

[click image to enlarge]

Articulation
/ɛ/ is an unrounded, low-mid, front, B-class vowel. The tongue body is slightly raised towards the palate (Collins and Mees 2003; Eijkman 1937). /ɛ/ is nasalised before nasal consonants, raised and centralised before velars, and lowered and centralised before dark /l/ (Collins and Mees 2003). /ɛ/ is lengthened and centralised before /r/.

Duration
/ɛ/ is phonetically short (Adank et al. 2004), but lengthened before /r/. Absolute duration varies with the type of speech and speaking rate, but reported average durations have ranged from 81 ms in spontaneous speech (Van Son and Pols 1990) to 107 ms (Rietveld et al. 2004), both in elicited read speech.

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[+] Acoustic properties of ɛ

While /ɛ/ is lengthened and centralised before /r/, its lengthening is not of such an extent that there is neutralisation with [ɛː] (as in beige[ˈbɛː.ʒə]beige). 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 520 669 583
504 535 618
475
Flanders 554 581 475
572

Table 2
F2 mixed female male
Netherlands 1818 1905 1725
1859 1990 1877
1739
Flanders 1730 1932 1616
1733

Examples

Table 3: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Northern Standard Dutch /ɛ/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectogram
iedere stap die ze zetevery step that she does pre-obstruent
[click image to enlarge]
(...) pen en papier meenemen(...) take pen and paper pre-sonorant
[click image to enlarge]
(...) schoot zijn ster met duizelingwekkende vaart omhoog(...) kicked his star with staggering speed up 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 /ɛ/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectogram
papa zet meneer(...) papa sits mister (...) pre-obstruent
[click image to enlarge]
van de krassende penfrom the scratching pen pre-sonorant
[click image to enlarge]
elke ster hing onbeweeglijk op zijn plaatsevery star hang motionless at its place pre-liquid
[click image to enlarge]

[+] Phonological analysis of /ɛ/

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

/ɛ/ as a B-class vowel
The vowel /ɛ/ alternates with the mid A-class vowel /e/ in some singular-plural paradigms such as:

Example 2

a. gebed
[gebɛt]
prayer
b. gebeden
[gəbedən]
prayers

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 /ɛ/ and /e/ is assumed to be one of length, and this implies that /ɛ/ is supposed to be mid like /e/ rather than low. However, it seems to make (a little) more sense to suppose that /ɪ/ is the B-class vowel counterpart of /e/, and this would imply that /ɪ/ is mid and /ɛ/ low.

Phonotactics
/ɛ/ is a B-class vowel and can be preceded by at most two tautosyllabic non-coronal consonants; it should be followed by a consonant, except in a few interjections ( hè'huh). No other restrictions on its distribution have been noted.

References:
  • 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
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