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The velar fricatives /x/ and /ɣ/
quickinfo

Features
A possible feature specification of  /x/ is -sonorant, -voice, -labial, -coronal, +velar, +continuantwhile  /ɣ/ has the features -sonorant, +voice, -labial, -coronal, +velar, +continuant.

Phonotactic behaviour
As a voiceless fricative, /x/ can occur in onset clusters of one or two consonants, such as in 1a, 1b, respectively. Somewhat exceptionally, it can also occur in onset clusters of three consonants, such as in 1c; it has sometimes been suggested that these clusters are actually phonological manifestations of /sr/ (which is absent from Dutch). Furthermore, /x/ can occur in simple codas, such as in 2a, but not in complex codas; as an allophone of /x/, [ɣ] can occur in that position (cf. 2b).

Example 1

Onset
a. chaos chaos
b. chroom chrome
c. schrijven write
Example 2

Coda
a. lach laugh
b. berg mountain

The contrast between /x/ and /ɣ/ is problematic. There are not many minimal pairs,3a and 3b might be a possible one:

Example 3

a. gloor dawn
b. chloor chlorium

In many dialects, the contrast seems to have merged towards the voiceless variant. In those dialects which do have both sounds, /ɣ/ very clearly is the voiced counterpart of /x/: /ɣ/ turns into [x] at the end of the word because of final devoicing, and /x/ into [ɣ] because of voicing assimilation, as shown in 4.

Example 4

Bach-boek   Ba [ɣb]  oek book about Bach
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[+] Articulatory information

Dutch /x/ is a voiceless and /ɣ/ a voicedfricative, with the place of articulation ranging from palato-velar to uvular. Palato-velar and velar realisations are more common in Belgian Standard Dutch, whereas uvular realisations are more common in the Standard Dutch of the Netherlands (Van der Harst et al. 2007). Uvular realisations are often accompanied by strongly turbulent vibrations of the uvula.

Velar
Speech sounds produced at velar place of articulation (between palatal and uvular). See the human speech organs.

Uvular
Speech sounds produced at the very back of the velum, close to or at the uvula. May include vibration of the uvula (in trills and fricatives). See the human speech organs.

Fricative
Consonant involving turbulent airflow through a narrow channel produced by close approximation of the active and passive articulators. See the human speech organs.


Figure 1: The human speech organs

[click image to enlarge]

[+] Acoustic information

Velar
  • In obstruents, noise or noise bursts characterised by a relatively low centre of gravity (typically around 4200Hz), an acute noise peak at low frequency (below 2 KHz) and one or more additional ones. Spectrograms show an identifiable formant structure, as opposed to fricatives and stops at other places of articulation; F2 is the most clearly visible formant.
  • In sonorants, formant structure characterised by a relatively high F2 and low F3, to the point where the two approach each other.

Fricative
consonant involving aperiodic energy ( noise)

Dutch /x/ and /ɣ/ display variation as to the frequency of the acute noise peak, with lower values (around 1600Hz) for Northern Standard Dutch and higher values (2000Hz) in Belgian Standard Dutch. This indicates a more posteriorplace of articulation in Northern Standard Dutch.  There are, however, also large differences between speakers of each variety; this is also true for the relative duration and relative intensity (Van der Harst et al. 2007).

[+] Examples

Table 1: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Northern Standard Dutch /x/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectogram
en overal chaosand chaos everywhere word-initial
[click image to enlarge]
samen lachenlaugh together intervocalic
[click image to enlarge]
Mirjam schiet in de lachMirjam bursts out laughing word-final
[click image to enlarge]

Table 2: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Southern Standard Dutch /x/
wordgroup phonological context soundfile waveform/spectogram
(...) en chaos op de bus stations(...) and chaos at the bus stations word-initial
[click image to enlarge]
we moesten allebei lachenwe both had to laugh intervocalic
[click image to enlarge]
(...) kon mijn lach niet inhouden(...) could not hold back my laughter word-final
[click image to enlarge]
[+] Intra- and interspeaker variation

The realisation of /x/ and /ɣ/ displays considerable intra- and interspeaker variation within Standard Dutch. Both the intraspeaker and the interspeaker variation mainly concern the degree of voicing of /ɣ/ and the place of articulation of both /x/ and /ɣ/. The most important manifestations of intra- and interspeaker variation are allophonic and geographical, respectively, and are discussed below.

Allophonic variation - Voicing
Although the difference between /x/ and /ɣ/ is traditionally said to be one of voicing, the allophonic variation displayed by both phonemes makes the situation much more complex (in addition to the more general loss of voicing in /ɣ/ in Northern Standard Dutch, see below). This section describes the situation for speakers who do have a contrast between the two phonemes in at least certain contexts.

First, as with all obstruents, the velarfricatives are subject to final devoicing, a phonological process which leads to the voicedvelarfricative being realised as voiceless in word-final position [or: a constraint banning the occurence of voiced obstruents in word-final positions], and alternations such as the following:

Example 5

zeg /zɛɣ/ [zɛx] say (1sg) vs. zeggen /zɛɣə/ [zɛɣə] say (INF)
vlag /vlɑɣ/ [vlɑx] flag vs. vlaggen /vlɑɣə/ [vlɑɣə] flags

Secondly, fricatives in Dutch have a phonetic tendency to devoice in word-initial position, and this affects more posteriorfricatives more strongly than anterior ones. This leads to initial /ɣ/, as in goed/xud/good, being realised with little or no voicing. (On the other hand, there is a general phonetic tendency for intervocalicfricatives to become voiced.

Allophonic variation - Place of articulation
While the place of articulation of the velar fricatives in Standard Dutch mainly varies with the regional background of the speaker, there may also be a degree of intra-speaker ( allophonic) variation, related to the immediate phonetic context. Speakers of Northern Standard Dutch who mainly realise /x/ and /ɣ/ as a uvular fricative [χ], may have a more fronted, i.e. velar or even palatal, realisation when the fricative is preceded and followed by palatal sounds, as in the diminutive vliegjefly (Reenen and Huijs 2000).

Regional variation
In Northern Standard Dutch, the term “ voiced velar fricative” and its transcription /ɣ/ no longer describes reality, with regard to both voicing and place of articulation. For Belgian Standard Dutch, the term is more appropriate, although fully voiced realisations form a minority there, too.

Regional variation - Voicing
The first indications that /ɣ/ was largely realised as voiceless in Northern Standard Dutch are from almost a century ago (Zwaardemaker and Eijckman 1928), and these have been confirmed by corpus and experimental studies since ( (Van den Broecke and Van Heuven 1979, Slis and Van Heugten 1989; Van de Velde et al. 1996; Smakman 2006, Van der Harst et al. 2007)). In Belgian Standard Dutch too, fully voiced realisations of /ɣ/ are in the minority, though many speakers vary between voiceless and at least partially voiced realisations ( Van de Velde et al. 1996; Van der Harst et al. 2007)).

Regional variation - Place of articulation
There is considerable variation in the place of articulation of the ` velar' fricatives, which is largely correlated with the two varieties of Standard Dutch (that of the Netherlands and that of Belgium). While both /x/ and /ɣ/ are usually realised as uvular fricatives in Northern Standard Dutch (with a minority of velar realisations), while the main place of articulation in Belgian Standard Dutch is velar, with some palato-velar realisations ( (Van den Broecke and Van Heuven 1979), Van de Velde et al. 1996; Smakman 2006; Van der Harst et al. 2007).

[+] Further discussion

Correlation between voice and place
There is a strong correlation between the degree of voicing and the place of articulation of /ɣ/ (Van de Velde et al. 1996). More posterior realisations have a tendency to be voiceless, whereas more anterior ones more often retain a degree of voicing. This correlation finds an explanation in the phonetic difficulty of maintaining both voicing and frication, which increases with more posterior places of articulation (Ohala 1983).

Contrast /x/ ~ /ɣ/
As /x/ and /ɣ/ are both usually realised as voiceless uvular fricatives in Northern Standard Dutch (and /ɣ/ being variably devoiced in Belgian Standard Dutch), the contrast between the two fricatives may be lost for some speakers. However, experimental studies suggest that the contrast may be realised in terms of duration: /ɣ/ is shorter than /x/, even when both are realised as [χ] (Van den Broecke and Van Heuven 1979). There is also an inverse relationship with the duration of the preceding vowel, i.e. vowels are longer before /ɣ/ than before /x/.

It is uncertain if there are speakers who have a complete phonetic merger of the two phonemes, but a phonological merger seems unlikely; since the selection of the regular past tenseallomorph for weak verbs depends on the voicing specification of the stem-final consonant, a contrast between final /x/ and /ɣ/ is crucial in maintaining the native past tense pattern, even though the surface realisation of the past tense with a /ɣ/-final stem may violate phonological well-formedness (i.e. a voicelessobstruent is followed by a voicedobstruent):

Example 6

a. lachen /lɑxə/ laugh-INF to laugh   vs. lachte /lɑxtə/ [lɑχtə] laugh.1SG.PST laughed
b. vlaggen /vlɑɣə/ flag-INF to flag   vs. vlagde /vlɑɣdə/ [vlɑχdə] flag.1SG.PST flagged
References:
  • Broecke, M.R.P. van den & Heuven, Vincent J.J.P. van1979One or two velar fricatives in Dutch?Anniversaries in phonetics: studia gratulatoria dedicated to Hendrik MolAmsterdamInstitute of Phonetic Sciences, University of Amsterdam51-67
  • Broecke, M.R.P. van den & Heuven, Vincent J.J.P. van1979One or two velar fricatives in Dutch?Anniversaries in phonetics: studia gratulatoria dedicated to Hendrik MolAmsterdamInstitute of Phonetic Sciences, University of Amsterdam51-67
  • Broecke, M.R.P. van den & Heuven, Vincent J.J.P. van1979One or two velar fricatives in Dutch?Anniversaries in phonetics: studia gratulatoria dedicated to Hendrik MolAmsterdamInstitute of Phonetic Sciences, University of Amsterdam51-67
  • Harst, Sander van der, Velde, Hans van de & Schouten, Bert2007Acoustic characteristics of Standard Dutch /ɣ/Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences1469-1472
  • Harst, Sander van der, Velde, Hans van de & Schouten, Bert2007Acoustic characteristics of Standard Dutch /ɣ/Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences1469-1472
  • Harst, Sander van der, Velde, Hans van de & Schouten, Bert2007Acoustic characteristics of Standard Dutch /ɣ/Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences1469-1472
  • Harst, Sander van der, Velde, Hans van de & Schouten, Bert2007Acoustic characteristics of Standard Dutch /ɣ/Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences1469-1472
  • Harst, Sander van der, Velde, Hans van de & Schouten, Bert2007Acoustic characteristics of Standard Dutch /ɣ/Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences1469-1472
  • Ohala, J.J. 1983The origin of sound patterns in vocal tract constraintsMacNeilage, P.F. (ed.)The production of speechNew YorkSpringer-Verlag189 - 216
  • Reenen, P. van & Huijs, N2000De harde en de zachte g, de spelling gh versus g voor voorklinker in het veertiende-eeuwse MiddelnederlandsTaal en Tongval52159-181
  • Slis, Iman H. & Heugten, M. van1989Voiced-voiceless distinction in Dutch fricativesLinguistics in the Netherlands 1989
  • Smakman, Dick2006Standard Dutch in the Netherlands: A Sociolinguistic and Phonetic DescriptionUtrechtLOT
  • Smakman, Dick2006Standard Dutch in the Netherlands: A Sociolinguistic and Phonetic DescriptionUtrechtLOT
  • Velde, Hans van de, Gerritsen, Marinel & Hout, Roeland van1996The devoicing of fricatives in Standard Dutch: A real-time study based on radio recordingsLanguage Variation and Change8149-175
  • Velde, Hans van de, Gerritsen, Marinel & Hout, Roeland van1996The devoicing of fricatives in Standard Dutch: A real-time study based on radio recordingsLanguage Variation and Change8149-175
  • Velde, Hans van de, Gerritsen, Marinel & Hout, Roeland van1996The devoicing of fricatives in Standard Dutch: A real-time study based on radio recordingsLanguage Variation and Change8149-175
  • Velde, Hans van de, Gerritsen, Marinel & Hout, Roeland van1996The devoicing of fricatives in Standard Dutch: A real-time study based on radio recordingsLanguage Variation and Change8149-175
  • Zwaardemaker, H. & Eijckman, L.P.H1928Leerboek der PhonetiekHaarlemDe Erven Bohn
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