Afrikaans phonology

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Afrikaans has a similar phonology to other West Germanic languages, especially Dutch.


Afrikaans has an extensive vowel inventory consisting of 17 vowel phonemes, among which there are 10 monophthongs and 7 diphthongs. There are also 7 marginal monophthongs.


Monophthong phonemes[1]
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
short long short short long short long short long
Close i () y ə (əː) u ()
Mid ɛ ɛː œ (œː) ɔ (ɔː)
Open (æ) (æː) ɐ ɑː

Close and mid[edit]

  • As phonemes, /iː/ and /uː/ occur only in the words spieël /spiːl/ 'mirror' and koeël /kuːl/ 'bullet', which used to be pronounced with sequences /i.ə/ and /u.ə/, respectively. In other cases, [] and [] occur as allophones of, respectively, /i/ and /u/ before /r/.[2]
  • /y/ tends to be merged with /i/ into [i].[3]
  • /y/ is phonetically long [] before /r/.[4]
  • When stressed, /ə/ is closer than mid, i.e. [ɨ̞]. Because of that, Donaldson (1993) transcribes it as /ɪ̈/. Many scholars however, simply use /ə/,[5] and that is the transcription that is used in this article.
  • In some words such as vanaand /fəˈnɑːnt/ 'this evening', unstressed a is actually a schwa /ə/, not /ɐ/.[5]
  • /əː/ is always stressed, so it is [ɨ̞ː] phonetically (the reason for which Donaldson (1993) transcribes it as /ɪ̈ː/). It occurs only in the word wîe 'wedges', which is realized as either [ˈvəːə] or [ˈvəːɦə] (with a weak [ɦ]).[6]
  • /u/ is weakly rounded, and could be more narrowly transcribed as [u̜] or [ɯ̹]. For this reason, it is sometimes transcribed /ɯ/.[3]
  • /ɛ/ contrasts with /ɛː/ only in the minimal pair pers /pɛrs/ 'press' – pers /pɛːrs/ 'purple'.[7]
  • Before the sequences /rt, rd, rs/, the /ɛ–ɛː/ and /ɔ–ɔː/ contrasts are neutralized in favour of the long variants /ɛː/ and /ɔː/, respectively.[8]
  • The closest unrounded counterparts of /œ, œː/ are central /ə, əː/, rather than front /ɛ, ɛː/.[9]
    • Many speakers merge /œ/ with /ə/ into [ɨ̞].[3] This merger has been noted as early as 1927, and was stigmatized at that time.[10]
    • The sequence /œː.ə/ is realized as either [œː.ə] or [œː.ɦə] (with a weak [ɦ]).[8]
  • /œː, ɔː/ occur only in a few words.[8]


  • As a phoneme, /æ/ occurs only in some loanwords from English, such as pêl /pæl/ 'pal', as well as in some words such as vertrek /fərˈtræk/ 'departure'. As an allophone of /ɛ/ before /k, χ, l, r/, [æ] occurs dialectally, most commonly in the former Transvaal and Free State provinces.[11]
  • As a phoneme, /æː/ occurs only in some loanwords from English (such as grênd [græːnt] 'grand'), as well as before /k/ in some words. [æː] also occurs as an allophone of /ɛː/ before /r/ and the sequences /rs, rt, rd/.[11]
  • /ɐ, ɑː/ are sometimes transcribed with simpler symbols /a, aː/,[12] but the actual phonetic realization of these phonemes is, respectively, [ɐ] and [ɑː].[13][14]
  • In the former Transvaal province, /ɑː/ is realized as rounded [ɒː]. Very rarely, it is also raised to [ɔː].[15][Does the [ɔː] realization of /ɑː/ merge with /ɔː/?]
  • In some words, such as hamer, short /ɐ/ is in free variation with long /ɑː/, despite the fact that the spelling suggests the latter vowel. In some words, such as laat, the pronunciation with short /ɐ/ occurs only in the colloquial language. In some other words, such as aambeeld /ˈɐmbeəlt/ 'anvil', the pronunciation with short /ɐ/ is already a part of the standard language.[16] This shortening of /ɑː/ has been noted as early as 1927.[17]
  • The orthographic sequence ae can be pronounced as either [ɑː] or [ɑːɦə] (with a weak [ɦ]).[16]

Nasalized vowels[edit]

In some instances of the postvocalic sequence /ns/, /n/ is realized as nasalization (and lengthening, if the vowel is short) of the preceding monophthong. This nasalization is stronger in some speakers than others, but there also are speakers that retain the [n] as well as the original length of the preceding vowel.[18]

  • The sequence /ɐns/ in words such as dans is realized as [ɐ̃ːs]. In monosyllabic words, this realization is the norm.[7]
  • The sequence /ɑːns/ in more common words (such as Afrikaans) is realized as either [ɑ̃ːs] or [ɑːns]. In less common words (such as Italiaans), [ɑːns] is the usual pronunciation.[7]
  • The sequence /ɛns/ in words such as mens is realized as [ɛ̃ːs].[7]
  • The sequence /œns/ in words such as guns is more often realized as [œns] than [œ̃ːs].[3] For speakers with the /œ–ə/ merger, these transcriptions are to be read as [ɨ̞ns] and [ɨ̞̃ːs], respectively.
  • The sequence /ɔns/ in words such as spons is realized as [ɔ̃ːs].[3]

Collins & Mees (2003) analyze the pre-/s/ sequences /ɐn, ɛn, ɔn/ as phonemic short vowels /ɑ̃, ɛ̃, ɔ̃/. They also note that this process of nasalizing the vowel and deleting the nasal also occurs in many accents of Dutch, for example in The Hague dialect.[19]


Diphthong phonemes[20][21]
Starting point Ending point
Front Central Back
Mid unrounded eø, əi
rounded œi, ɔi œu
Open unrounded ɐi
  • The scholar Daan Wissing argues that /əi/ is not a phonetically correct transcription, and that /æɛ/ is more accurate. In his analysis, he found that [æɛ] makes for 65% of the realizations, while the other 35% of realizations were monophthongal, namely [ə], [æ] and [ɛ].[22]
  • Some sources prescribe monophthongal pronunciations [øː, , ] of /eø, eə, oə/. This is at least a partially outdated approach:[21][23]
    • There is not a complete agreement about the realization of /eø/:
      • According to Lass (1987), it is realized as either rising [ë̯ø] or falling [ëø̯], with the rising realization being the most common. The unrounded onset is a rather recent development, and is not described by older sources. The monophthongal realization [ø] is very rare.[24]
      • According to Donaldson (1993), it is realized as [øə]. Its onset is sometimes unrounded, which can cause it to merge with /eə/.[25]
    • There is not a complete agreement about the realization of /eə, oə/
      • According to Lass (1987), these may be realized in four ways:
        • Falling diphthongs. Their first element may be short [ëə̯, öə̯] or somewhat lengthened [ëˑə̯, öˑə̯].[21]
        • Rising diphthongs [ë̯ə, ö̯ə]. These variants don't seem to appear word-finally. The sequence /ɦoə/ is commonly realized as [ɦö̯ə] or, more often [ö̯̤ə̤], with /ɦ/ realized as breathy voice on the diphthong.[21]
        • Indeterminate diphthongs [ëə, öə], which may occur in all environments.[21]
        • Monophthongs, either short [ë, ö] or somewhat lengthened [ëˑ, öˑ]. The monophthongal realizations occur in less stressed words, as well as in stressed syllables in words that have more than one syllable. In the latter case, they are in free variation with all of the three diphthongal realizations. In case of /oə/, the monophthongal [ö] also appears in unstressed word-final syllables.[21]
      • According to De Villiers (1976), the onsets of [eə, oə] are somewhat closer to cardinal [i, u] than cardinal [e, o], i.e. near-close [ɪə, ʊə].[26]
      • According to Donaldson (1993), these are realized as either [eə, oə] or [iə, uə].[23]
  • /eə/ also occurs in words spelled with , like reël /ˈreəl/ 'rule'. Historically, these were pronounced with a disyllabic sequence /eː.ə/, thus reël used to be pronounced pronounced /ˈreː.əl/.[23]
  • There is not a complete agreement about the dialectal realization of /eə, oə/ in the Boland area:
  • Most often, /œi/ has an unrounded offset. For some speakers, the onset is also unrounded. That can cause /œi/ to merge with /əi/, which is considered non-standard.[29]
  • /ɔi, ɐi/ occur mainly in loanwords.[29]
  • Older sources describe /œu/ as a narrow back diphthong [ou].[30][31] However, newer sources describe its onset as more front. For example, Lass (1984), states that the onset of /œu/ is central [ɵu].[32]
    • In some words, which in English are pronounced with /əʊ/, the Afrikaans equivalent tends to be pronounced with /œu/, rather than /oə/. This happens because Afrikaans /œu/ is more similar to the usual South African realization of English /əʊ/.[30]

Long diphthongs[edit]

The long diphthongs (or 'double vowels') are phonemically sequences of a free vowel and a non-syllabic equivalent of /i/ or /u/. They are [ɑːi, oːi, ui, (eu), iu]. [eu] tends to merge with [iu], but they are always spelled differently: the former as eeu, the latter as ieu.[33]

'False' diphthongs[edit]

In diminutives of monosyllabic nouns ending in /ki/, the vowels /ɐ, ɑː, ɛ, eə, ə, ɔ, oə, u, œ/ are realized as closing diphthongs [ɐi, ɑːi, ɛi, ei, əi, ɔi, oi, ui, œi]. In the same environment, the sequences /ɐn, ɛn, ən, ɔn, œn/ are realized as [ɐiɲ, ɛiɲ, əiɲ, ɔiɲ, œiɲ], i.e. as closing diphthongs followed by palatal nasal.[34]

  • The suffixes -aad and -aat (both phonemically /ɑːt/) and the diminutive suffix /ki/ are realized as [ɑːci] (with a monophthong), rather than [ɑːici].[29]
  • In practice, the diphthong [əi] is realized the same as the phonemic diphthong /əi/.[35]
  • [œi] arisen from diphthongization of [œ] differs from the phonemic diphthong /œi/ by having a slightly different onset. This means that puntjie 'point' sounds somewhat different than puintjie 'rubble'.[35]


Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Dorsal Post-
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t k t͡ʃ
voiced b d ɡ d͡ʒ
Fricative voiceless f s χ ʃ
voiced v z ʒ ɦ
Approximant l j
Rhotic r


  • All obstruents at the ends of words are devoiced, so that e.g. a final /d/ is realized as [t].[36]
  • /p, t, k, tʃ/ are unaspirated.[37]
  • According to some authors,[38] /v/ is actually an approximant [ʋ].[39]
  • /k/ may be somewhat more front before front vowels; the fronted allophone of /k/ also occurs in diminutives ending in -djie and -tjie.[40]
  • /dʒ, z/ occur only in loanwords.
  • /χ/ is most often uvular, either a fricative, [χ] or a voiceless trill [ʀ̥] - the latter especially in initial position before a stressed vowel.[39][41][42] The uvular fricative is also used by many speakers of White South African English as a realization of the marginal English phoneme /x/.[42] In Afrikaans, velar [x] may be used in a few "hyper-posh" varieties, and it may also rarely occur as an allophone before front vowels in speakers with otherwise uvular [χ].[41]
  • /ɡ/ occurs only in loanwords. In some environments,[which?] [ɡ] is an allophone of /χ/.[43]


  • /m/ and /n/ assimilate their articulation to a following obstruent in many cases:
    • Both merge into bilabial [m] before /p, b/, and labiodental [ɱ] before /f, v/.
    • /n/ merges into /ŋ/ before dorsals (/k, χ/). It is realized as velar [ŋ] before /k/ and the [ɡ] allophone of /χ/,[can [ɡ] occur after [ŋ]?] and as uvular [ɴ] before /χ/.
  • /l/ is velarized [ɫ] in all positions. This is especially noticeable non-prevocalically.[24][40]
  • /r/ is usually an alveolar trill [r] or tap [ɾ].[24] In some parts of the former Cape Province, it is realized uvularly, either as a trill [ʀ] or a fricative [ʁ].[40] The uvular trill may also be pronounced as a tap [ʀ̆].
Afrikaans consonants with example words
Phoneme Example
IPA IPA Orthography Gloss
p pɔt pot 'pot'
b bɛt bed 'bed'
t ˈtɑːfəl tafel 'table'
d dɐk dak 'roof'
ˈtʃɛχis Tsjeggies 'Czech'
ˈbɐdʒi budjie 'budgerigar'
k kɐt kat 'cat'
ɡ ˈsɔrɡə sorge 'cares'
m mɐn man 'man'
n noːi nooi 'invite'
ŋ səŋ sing 'to sing'
f fits fiets 'bicycle'
v ˈvɑːtər water 'water'
s seøn seun 'son'
z ˈzulu Zoeloe 'Zulu'
ʃ ˈʃinɐ Sjina 'China'
ʒ viʒyːˈeəl visueel 'visually'
χ χut goed 'good'
r roːi rooi 'red'
ɦ ɦœis huis 'house'
j ˈjiːsœs Jesus 'Jesus'
l lif lief 'dear'

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 2–7.
  2. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 4–6.
  3. ^ a b c d e Donaldson (1993), p. 5.
  4. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 5–6.
  5. ^ a b Donaldson (1993), pp. 4 and 6.
  6. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 4 and 6–7.
  7. ^ a b c d Donaldson (1993), p. 3.
  8. ^ a b c Donaldson (1993), p. 7.
  9. ^ Swanepoel (1927), p. 38.
  10. ^ Swanepoel (1927), p. 39.
  11. ^ a b Donaldson (1993), pp. 3 and 7.
  12. ^ For example by Donaldson (1993).
  13. ^ Lass (1984), pp. 76, 93–94 and 105.
  14. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 7 and 18.
  15. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 6–7.
  16. ^ a b Donaldson (1993), p. 6.
  17. ^ Swanepoel (1927), p. 22.
  18. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 3 and 5.
  19. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 71.
  20. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 2 and 8–10.
  21. ^ a b c d e f Lass (1987), pp. 117–119.
  22. ^ Wissing (2009), p. 333.
  23. ^ a b c d Donaldson (1993), p. 8.
  24. ^ a b c Lass (1987), p. 117.
  25. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 8–9.
  26. ^ De Villiers (1976), pp. 56–57.
  27. ^ Lass (1987), p. 118.
  28. ^ a b Cited in Lass (1987:117–118). The preview on Google Books makes it unclear whether De Villiers' book is "Afrikaanse klankleer. Fonetiek, fonologie en woordbou" or "Nederlands en Afrikaans", as both are cited at the end of Lass's chapter.
  29. ^ a b c Donaldson (1993), p. 10.
  30. ^ a b Donaldson (1993), p. 9.
  31. ^ Swanepoel (1927), p. 44.
  32. ^ Lass (1984), p. 102.
  33. ^ Donaldson (1993), p. 12.
  34. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 10–11.
  35. ^ a b Donaldson (1993), p. 11.
  36. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 13–15.
  37. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 14–16.
  38. ^ For example Den Besten (2012).
  39. ^ a b Den Besten (2012).
  40. ^ a b c Donaldson (1993), p. 15.
  41. ^ a b "John Wells's phonetic blog: velar or uvular?". 5 December 2011. Retrieved 12 February 2015.  Only this source mentions the trilled realization.
  42. ^ a b Bowerman (2004:939): "White South African English is one of very few varieties to have a velar fricative phoneme /x/ (see Lass (2002:120)), but this is only in words borrowed from Afrikaans (...) and Khoisan (...). Many speakers use the Afrikaans uvular fricative [χ] rather than the velar."
  43. ^ Donaldson (1993), pp. 13–14.


Further reading[edit]