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By the process of rhotacism the Afrikaans voiced alveolar consonant /d/ quite frequently alternates intervocalically in unstressed syllables with [r]. In terms of a consonant sonority scale the change from a stop /d/ to a trill (or tap) /r/ can be explained as one of consonant weakening, or lenition (De Villiers and Ponelis 1987; Sebregts 2015). It is not present in Dutch and to a very limited degree observable in Frisian.

From a comparison of acoustic analysis, it is reasonable to characterise the Afrikaans [r] sounds both as either short trills or even as tap sounds. In the remainder of this topic, therefore, we use the phonetic symbol [r] in all examples of realisations of /d/.


Le Roux and Pienaar (1927) provide a number of cases of this process, though they do not use the term rhotacism, neither do Combrink and De Stadler (1987); the latter included it under assibilation. De Villiers (1965) initially included cases of [r] that varies intervocalically with [d] under the category of assibilation as well, but in the revised version of this book De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) it was replaced by the term rhotacism.

Le Roux and Pienaar (1927) mention that this process was fairly recent at the time of the writing of their book, and more observable in the former Western Province than elsewhere, and more readily in the case of younger speakers. Currently, indeed, it is much more wide-spread, as already indicated by De Villiers and Ponelis (1987), who stress the fact that rhotacism is to be observed even in formal speaking styles, such as in sermons and official gatherings.

In this topic we present a more complete survey of rhotacism as it is to be observed over a wide spectrum of pronunciation, especially in news bulletins of RSG (see Introduction to phonological processes).

Examples of rhotacism cited in the literature mentioned above include beddegoed, bedding, bidde, gladde, koddig, medisyne, middag, mode, nodig, oorlede, padda, predikant, skeiding, stadig, verlede. At morpheme or word boundaries (instances of sandhi) Le Roux and Pienaar (1927) and De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) site a few examples, viz: nadie [na-ri] to the, (ek hou) daarvan [ra:fɑn] of it, dat die [dɑri] of it, nou die (dag) [nouri] the other day – note that the transcriptions are those of the cited authors.

The precise phonetic characteristics of the rhotic consonant has not yet been given any attention in the literature. Implicitly it is assumed to be a normal trill [r]. Here we also explore the possibility of this consonant being a trill or a tap /r/.

In order to properly assess the nature of the variation of the Afrikaans [d] and the rhotic [r], we provide a short description of the articulatory and acoustic features of both. Note that in some respects one could rather see such variation as allophonic in nature, that is, /d/ has the allophone [r].

[+]The phonetics of the voiced alveolar stop /d/

Afrikaans /d/ is a voiced alveolar plosive; its voiceless counterpart is /t/ (Van Wyk 1977; Le Roux and Pienaar 1927). A possible feature specification /d/ is -sonorant, +voice, +coronal, +anterior, –continuant. See The alveolar plosives t and d for more details.

Traditionally /d/, together with /b/, is described as a pre-voiced plosive (i.e. with a negative voice onset time (VOT). Coetzee et al. (2014) show that especially in the speech of younger Afrikaans speakers there is a lack of prevoicing. In the following discussion of the difference between [d] and [r] we only refer to cases where prevoicing is prevalent.

[+]The rhotic consonant /r/

In Standard Afrikaans,  /r/  is a typical alveolar trill. In some varieties of Afrikaans it may also be a uvular trill, a uvular approximant, or a velar fricative (Van Wyk 1977Le Roux and Pienaar 1927). A typical feature specification of the standard variety might be +sonorant, +coronal, +anterior, +voice, +trill. See The trill r for details, and references to further literature.

In intervocalic position, the trill /r/ is generally short, with only one up to three pulses being common (see The trill r.)

[+]Acoustic comparison of /d/ and /r/

In Table 1 the acoustic features are shown of the voiced alveolar plosive [d] (Mandela in A), the alveolar rhotic trill [r] (Barack in B), and the trill [r] derived from underlying /d/ (nodig in C). The differences are important when one has to decide whether /d/ was realised by [r].

Table 1: Oscillograms and spectrograms of two realisations of /d/ (A, C), and one of /r/ (B)

Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

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  1. The spectral difference between [d] in A and [r] in B is evident. The consonant [d] exhibits a pre-voicing portion of 45 ms, followed by a typical plosive spike of about 10 ms. In [r] of B both pre-voicing and a plosive spike are absent. On the other hand, evidence of friction, absent in A, is clearly present in Bs as well as Cs [r]. This similarity at the same time suggests that the [r] of C is not a tap trill, but, like that of B, is rather a full trill consonant. The derived [r] of C shares the spectral and temporal properties of Bs [r]. The temporal difference between [d] and [r] is evident: [d] is much longer (52 ms) than [r] (27 ms).
  2. The temporal values of [d] constitutes six pulses and five periods; [r] only three pulses and two periods.
  3. The mean harmonics-to-noise ratio for [d] is 5.458 dB, much higher than the 3.59 dB for [r].

Figure 4 presents a direct comparison of the phoneme consonant /d/ realised as [d] and the allophone trill [r] in the word skade /skadə/. Compare these two with A and C, respectively, in Table 1.

Figure 4: Oscillograms and spectrograms of skade, pronounced as [skadə] (left), and [skarə] (right)

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The sound associated with this figure can be inspected. It is somewhat stretched-out, so that especially the /d/ in the second sound is clearly heard as [r]:

[+]Rhotacism in monomorphemes

Here a representative number of simplex words where intervocalic phonemic consonant /d/ exhibits regular alternation between [d] and [r] are provided. All examples have been retrieved from the RSG data set referred to in the topic Introduction to phonological processes. This is a speech set obtained from news bulletins, read by prominent radio presenters; as such, it could be taken as well-groomed pronunciations of Afrikaans in a formal situation, loosely to be characterised as non-casual with respect to speech style.

In this section we first inspect the examples of rhotacism as cited in general text books (cited above) in terms of their Rule Application Probability index (RAP) – see Introduction to phonological processes.

Only the following words cited above are found in the RSG dataset: medisyne; middag; nodig; oorlede; predikant; skeiding; stadig; verlede. The RAP indexes of these words range from 0.0 (medisyne; oorlede; skeiding; stadig), through 0.28 (gelede), 0.53 (middag) up to 0.61 (nodig). Where applicable, related forms of these words were also taken into account (e.g. stadige; vanmiddag; nodige). Note that some of the words of the original list are typically colloquial in nature (for example bidde; koddig and even padda), and thus unlikely to be present in a formal style such as news bulletins.

In the next section, a number of cases of rhotacism in single words that have not been reported before are listed. All of them are found in the RSG dataset.

[+]Rhotascism in single words not reported before

Cradock; gelede; lede; nadat; misdade; misdadiger(s); sodat; totdat; tweede.

For example, [d] in Cradock is quite clearly heard as [r]:

Rhotacism is, interestingly enough, seldomly acknowledged in the literature in cases of sandhi. Yet /r/ sandhi is widely present in Afrikaans, especially in casual speech, but also in more formal styles such as in radio newscasts, as will be shown in the following section.

Note that in all cases of rhotacism, stress lies directly before the affected consonant /d/. Vowels following /d/ are mostly schwa.

[+]Rhotacism in phrases

Of the cases of rhotacism across morpheme and word boundaries mentioned above (na die; hou daarvan; dat die; nou die), only na die and dat die occur in the RSG database. Both exhibit some instances of rhotacism, albeit to a limited extent. Apart from these, other examples of the kind toe die when the, het dit have it are present. Typically function words are involved; stress always lies on the first constituent, as is the case in when the process takes place word-internally.

The same type of [r] as in the figures above is present here; compare Figure 2:

Figure 5: Oscillogram of toe die, pronounced as [tu di](left), and as [tu ri] (right). Relevant consonants are indicated by coloured boxes.

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Listen to the following sound file:

As in the other cases, the difference between the basic /d/ of toe die and its variant [r] of [tu ri] seems quite clear in this oscillogram.

[+]Usage factors

The role of familiarity in the realm of usage is exceptionally clear in the case of rhotacism. The appearance of this phenomenon in a specific domain is striking. A word like sinode synod is not unlikely to undergo rhotacism in conversations by clergymen, rendering [sə'nuərə]. The same applies to kode code, i.e. [kuərə] by cashiers in shops, asking for a PIN code. Similarly, metode method is frequently heard as [mə'tuərə] in circles where operating methods are customary, so is the case with misdade ['məsdarə] crime within the realm of reporting in news bulletins.


Apart from the presence of cases of rhotacism as described above, that is in formal news bulletins, is it clear that it is even more readily heard in less formal styles, especially in casual speech of day-to-day conversations. Notable is the fact that this variation between [d] and [r] is not restricted to certain individuals. This alternation appears intra-individually too.

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