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Vowel reduction

Vowels tend to reduce in a number of ways in Afrikaans with respect to both their quality and quantity. In both cases the position of stress in complex words is the most important conditioning factor.


Vowel reduction is a characteristic phenomenon in many languages (For Dutch, see e.g. Ernestus 2000; Booij 1995; Van Bergem 1995). In the case of Dutch and Frisian, several topics are dedicated to vowel reduction elsewhere in Taalportaal, e.g. regarding possible factors conditioning the appearance of vowel reduction in Frisian, and for Dutch, see among others this topic. In the case of Afrikaans, consult the standard works Le Roux and Pienaar (1927), Breitenbach (1972), De Villiers and Ponelis (1987), Combrink and De Stadler (1987), as well as Coetzee (1992), Wissing (2017) and Van Bergem (1995).

Vowels tend to change their quality in a number of ways, the most important being reduction to schwa. derounding of full vowels also may be considered a special type of reduction; the same applies to monothongization. Quantitative changes also take place in unstressed position, in particular long vowels may become short. In special cases the reverse can also happen, with unstressed short vowels undergoing lengthening.

[+]Qualitative changes

The five most salient alternations between full vowels and schwa are as follows :

  1. /i/ > [ə]:

    adv/i/s ~ adv[ə]seer; f/i/sies ~ f[ə]siek; kl/i/nies ~ kl[ə]niek; kr/it/ies ~ kr[ə]tiek; pol/i/ties ~ pol[ə]tiek; stab/ie/l ~ stab[ə]liseer.

  2. /e/ > [ə]:

    atl/e/t ~ atl[ə]tiek; est/e/t ~ est[ə]tiek; fon/e/ties ~ fon[ə]tiek; g/e/ne ~ g[ə]neties; juw/e/l ~ juw[ə]lier; magn/e/t ~ magn[ə]tisme; m/e/dies ~ m[ə]disyne; pol/e/mies ~ pol[ə]miek; probl/e/m ~ probl[ə]maties; prof/e/t ~ prof[ə]teer; r/e/de ~ red[ə]neer; strat/e/g ~ strag[ə]gie.

  3. /ɛ/ > [ə]:

    adr/ɛ/s ~ adr[ə]sseer; aff/ɛ/k ~ aff[ə]kteer; app/ɛ/l ~ app[ə]leer; arr/ɛ/s ~ arr[ə]steer; eff/ɛ/k ~ eff[ə]ktief; ekspr/ɛ/ssie ~ ekspr[ə]ssief; kok/ɛ/t ~ kok[ə]tteer; koll/ɛ/kte ~ koll[ə]kteer; leg/ɛ/nde ~ leg[ə]ndaries; mod/ɛ/l ~ mod[ə]lleer; mol/ɛ/s ~ mol[ə]steer; p/ɛ/trol ~ p[ə]trolium; proj/ɛ/k ~ proj[ə]kteer; prot/ɛ/s ~ prot[ə]steer; reb/ɛ/l ~ reb[ə]lleer; resp/ɛ/k ~ resp[ə]kteer.

    The pronunciation of the word per id. in for example per meter id. poses as special case of reduction of /ɛ/ to [ə]. In the news readings by several RSG news readers a RAP of 0.76 was found; in persentasie percentage the RAP was 1.0.

  4. /ɑ/ > [ə]:

    gimn/ɑ/s ~ gimn[ə]stiek; komm/ɑ/ndo ~ komm[ə]ndeer; sj/ɑ/rme ~ sj[ə]rmant; v/ɑ/ndag ~ v[ə]ndag; v/ɑ/naand ~ v[ə]naand; v/ɑ/kansie ~ v[ə]kansie; v/ɑ/nmiddag ~ v[ə]nmiddag.

    A particular productive reduction is present in the pronunciation of function words that are highly frequent in usage, viz. pseudo-monomorphemes with unstressed dat as second element, such as nadat, sodat, voordat rendering [-dət] – even [rət] (see /d/ > [r]).

  5. /ɔ/ > [ə]:

    g/ɔ/rdyn ~ g[ɔ]rdyn; p/ɔ/rtret ~ p[ə]rtret.

    Words ending on -or behaves uniquely in a special way (see also vowel derounding), in that, on the one hand /ɔ/ is regularly reduced to [ə] in a few words, especially: doktor, motor, professor, junior and senior, but not in similar ones, also with comparable in frequency of usage and familiarity, viz. faktor, lektor, rektor and sektor. doktor is especially interesting in that dokter – a physician – and doktor – a person holding a PhD-degree – are both titles, abbreviated as dr., so that it frequently leads to ambiguity from the side of the listener. Therefore it could be expected that doktor's vowel not to be prone to deduction.

[+]Full vowels alternate with schwa in unaccented sentence position

Especially in casual speech, the vowels of function words, such as prepositions and auxiliary verbs, are often prone to reduction, except when special emphasis is needed. Generally such words are monosyllabic, and characterised by high-frequency usage. Casual speech mostly occurs at a relatively high talking rate; together these factors enhance reduction. The preposition en /ɛn/ and serves as a good example, rendering [ən]. Even in formal speech, such as in weather reports in radio bulletins, it regularly happens that the vowel of en shows such alternation. Wissing and Van Dijkhorst (2006) calculated the RAP of this alternation at two different speaking rates (normal and fast) when temperatures like 22 and 32 are being read out, resp. twee-en-twintig and twee-en-dertig. The RAP of en read at a fast rate was significantly higher than during normal speaking rate. This is clear evidence for the assumption that speaking rate is superior to speaking style as a predictor of reduction. Based on this finding it may be hypothesised that the same tendency could be expected in the case of other high-frequency function words such as van /fɑn/ of and kan /kɑn/ can. A telling example of reduction of van is in the closing sentence of f news bulletins: En dit is die einde van die nuus ... /ɛn dət əs di əində fɑn di nys/ commonly heard as [fən] in [ɛn dəsi əinə fəni nys] (nuus often derounded to [nis]).

[+]Reduction of diphthongs

Unlike in Dutch, where diphthongs are never reduced (see the topic on the influence of vowel quality on vowel reduction), in Afrikaans diphthongs do reduce to schwa or tend to monophthongise in unaccented sentence positions. The clearest example is present in pronouns like hy he and sy she. Even in content words this readily happens, and the phenomenon is not restricted to unaccented situations, but also also occurs when the word is not stressed. The clearest case in question is the diphthong of Suid- in Suid-Afrikaans(e) that is frequently pronounced as schwa. This is evident in the news readings of several prominent broadcasters (RSG). The diphthong /əi/ in seisoen /səisun/ [səsun] season is often clearly reduced to schwa (Wissing, 2005) .

[+]Quantitative changes

When not stressed, especially long vowels tend to shorten. This phenomenon is most clearly seen in cases of stress change that is common in word derivations. In Afrika /afrika/ Africa the first syllable takes stress, rendering a phonetically long [a], that becomes short in Afrikaans [ɑfrikans].

Phonologically Long /a/ is especially prone to shortening when not in stressed position, for example aanhou ['anɦəu] keep on ~ aanhoudend [ɑn'ɦəudənt]. The long vowel /a/ of the word aan in aan die to the, a frequently used combination, almost always shortens to [ɑ] in cases where /d/ deletion takes place, rendering [ɑni] (see /d/-deletion). Similar shortening of long /a/ to short [ɑ] is common in derivations such as banaliteit [bɑnɑlitəit] banality from banaal /bɑnal/.

[+]Deletion of schwa as a special case of quantitative vowel reduction

Schwa tends to get deleted in cases such as the following:

Especially, but not exclusively, in casual speech and in high frequency constructions. C cases include besond[ə]re, bloed[ə]rig, dad[ə]lik, dod[ə]lik, huw[ə]lik, ned[ə]rig, verbint[ə]nis, vergad[ə]ring. Here schwa is an unstressed vowel in the morphemes -erig, -elik, -enis and -ering. In all these cases the deletion of schwa results in the preferred trochaic structure /X // in word-final position, replacing the less common dactylic /X / //.

Other commonly occurring deletions of schwa include cases like [səis] from sy is /səi əs/ she is or [dars] from daar is /dar əs/ there is.

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  • Breitenbach, J.H1972Vokaalverandering en die verskuiwende aksent.Thesis
  • Coetzee, A.E1992Fonetiek.Academica
  • Combrink, J.G.H. & De Stadler, L.G1987Afrikaanse fonologie.Macmillan
  • De Villiers, M. & Ponelis, F.A1987Afrikaanse klankleer.Tafelberg
  • Dick van Bergem1995Acoustic and lexical vowel reductionIFOTT
  • Dick van Bergem1995Acoustic and lexical vowel reductionIFOTT
  • Ernestus, Mirjam T.C2000Voice Assimilation and Segment Reduction in Casual DutchUtrecht: LOTVrije Universiteit te AmsterdamThesis
  • Le Roux, T.H. & Pienaar, P. de V1927Afrikaanse fonetiek.Juta
  • Wissing, D2005Die Afrikaanse diftong /E+/: 'n eksperimentele ondersoek.Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies23319-334,
  • Wissing, D. & Van Dijkhorst, A2006Is spreekstyl en spreektempo sinonieme?: 'n fonologiese ondersoek.Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies24217-233
  • Wissing, Daan2017FonologieVan Schaik
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