White South African English phonology

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This article covers the phonological system of South African English (SAE) as spoken primarily by White South Africans. While there is some variation among speakers, SAE typically has a number of features in common with English as it is spoken in southern England (in places like London), such as non-rhoticity and the TRAPBATH split.

The two main phonological features that mark South African English as distinct are the behaviour of the vowels in KIT and PALM. The KIT vowel tends to be "split" so that there is a clear allophonic variation between the front [ɪ] and central [ɪ̈] or [ə]. The PALM vowel is characteristically back in the General and Broad varieties of SAE. The tendency to monophthongise /ɐʊ/ and /aɪ/ to [ɐː] and [aː] respectively, are also typical features of General and Broad White South African English.

General South African English features phonemic vowel length (so that ferry /ˈferiː/ and fairy /ˈfeːriː/ as well as cot /kɑt/ and cart /kɑːt/ differ only in length) as well as phonemic roundedness, so that fairy /ˈfeːriː/ is distinguished from furry /ˈføːriː/ by roundedness.[1][2]

Features involving consonants include the tendency for /tj/ (as in tune) and /dj/ (as in dune) to be realised as [tʃ] and [dʒ], respectively (see Yod coalescence), and /h/ has a strong tendency to be voiced initially.


The vocalic phonemes of South African English are as follows:[3]

Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
short long long short short long short long
Close ɨ ɵ ʉː
Close-mid e øː
Open-mid ɛ ɜ
Open a ɑ ɑː
Diphthongs     ɔɪ   ɐʊ   œʊ     ʉə
  • The original short front vowels TRAP, DRESS and KIT underwent a vowel shift similar to that found in New Zealand English, though not as extreme:
    • The TRAP vowel /ɛ/ varies from [æ] to [ɛ] in General and Cultivated SAE. However, the new prestige value in younger Johannesburg speakers of the General variety (particularly those who live in the wealthy northern suburbs) seems to be open front [a], the same as in Modern RP. Before [ɫ], the fully open [a] is the norm in the General variety, whereas before voiced stops as well as bilabial and alveolar nasals the vowel tends to be centralised and lengthened to [æ̈ː], often with slight diphthongisation ([æ̈ːə]). Broad /ɛ/ can be as close as mid [ɛ̝], encroaching on the Cultivated realisation of DRESS.[4][5][6][7]
    • DRESS /e/ is close-mid [e] or higher [] in General, often with centralisation [ë ~ ɪ] (it is unclear whether the last allophone is distinct from the front allophone of KIT in the General variety). Variants above the close-mid height are typical of female speech. General /e/ is similar enough to /ɪ/ in RP and similar accents as to cause perceptual problems for outsiders. Broad variants are very similar to the General ones, but in Cultivated the vowel can be as open as [] (within the RP norm). In General and Broad, the vowel can be lowered to [ɛ] or even [æ] when it occurs before [ɫ].[4][5][6]
    • As indicated in the transcription, the KIT vowel /ɨ/ has a schwa-like quality even in stressed positions, except when in contact with velars and palatals, after /h/ as well as in the word-initial position, where the conservative [ɪ] quality (further fronted to [i] in Broad) is retained. Due to weak vowel merger, neither Lenin and Lennon nor except and accept are distinct in SAE: /ˈlenɨn, ɨkˈsept/. The quality of the merged vowel is typically [ɨ̞] ([ə] in some Broad varieties), even in unstressed closed syllables. This means that all three vowels of limited /ˈlɨmɨtɨd/ are phonetically the same: [ˈlɨ̞mɨ̞tɨ̞d ~ ˈləmətəd]. These variants are covered by the symbol ɨ (without the lowering diacritic) in phonetic transcription. In the word-final position, the vowel is mid [ə] in all varieties, with some lowering to [ɐ] or even [ä] being possible in the Cultivated variety. These allophones are written with ə in phonetic transcription, and the same symbol is used for word-initial and postvocalic instances of word-internal KIT ([əkˈsept], etc.). As far as the phonemic analysis is concerned, the stressed central KIT has been variously analysed as an allophone of KIT, an allophone of COMMA (making it a stressable vowel), an allophone of a merged KIT/COMMA vowel (which is the analysis adopted in this article) or a phoneme of its own that is separate from both COMMA and the front variety of KIT.[8][9]
      • In the Cultivated variety, Lenin /ˈlenɪn/ and except /ɪkˈsept/ on the one hand and Lennon /ˈlenɨn/ and accept /ɨkˈsept/ on the other may be distinct, as in RP. In addition, stressed instances of KIT are consistently front [ɪ] (as in RP), without any centralisation, whereas the schwa is consistently mid, so that the unstressed vowels of Lenin and Lennon contrast not only by backness but also by height: [ˈlenɪn, ˈlenən]. The [ɪ] quality occurs also in happy /ˈhɛpɪ/ and immediately /ɪˈmiːdɪɨtlɪ/ (cf. General /ˈhɛpiː, ɨˈmiːdiːɨtliː/).[10][11] For this reason, this variety is analysed as containing an extra /ɪ/ phoneme.
  • The FLEECE vowel /iː/ is a long close front monophthong [], either close to cardinal [] or slightly mid-centralised. It does not have a tendency to diphthongise, which distinguishes SAE from Australian and New Zealand English.[12]
  • The FOOT vowel /ɵ/ is typically a weakly rounded retracted central vowel [ɵ̠], somewhat more central than the traditional RP value. Younger speakers of the General variety (especially females) often use a fully central [ɵ]. This vowel is effectively the rounded counterpart of KIT. Backer and sometimes more rounded variants ([ʊ ~ ʊ̹]) occur before [ɫ]. Broad SAE can feature a more rounded vowel, but that is more common in Afrikaans English.[12][13][14]
  • The GOOSE vowel /ʉː/ is usually central [ʉː] or somewhat fronter in White varieties, though in the Cultivated variety, it is closer to [] (typically not fully back, thus [u̟ː]), which is also the normal realisation before [ɫ] in other varieties. Younger (particularly female) speakers of the General variety use an even more front vowel [], so that food [fyːd] may be distinguished from feed [fiːd] only by rounding. The vowel is often a monophthong, but there is some tendency to diphthongise it before sonorants (as in wounded [ˈwʉundɨd] and school [skʉuɫ]).[15][16]
  • In the General variety, PRICE /aɪ/, MOUTH /ɐʊ/ and GOAT /œʊ/ are commonly monophthongized to [äː], [ɐ̠ː] (phonetically between BATH and a monophthongal PRICE) and [œː]. Among those, the monophthongal variant of PRICE is the most common. The last monophthong contrasts with the close-mid [øː], which stands for NURSE. The monophthonging of GOAT can cause intelligibility problems for outsiders; Roger Lass says that he himself once misunderstood the phrase the total onslaught [ðə ˈtœːtl̩ ˈɑnsloːt] for the turtle onslaught [ðə ˈtøːtl̩ ˈɑnsloːt]. On the other hand, CHOICE does not monophthongize. In addition, /eɪ/ is almost monophthongal [ee̝], resulting in a near-merger of FACE with SQUARE, which is normally a close-mid monophthong [].[17]


Sources differ in the way they transcribe South African English. The differences are listed below. The traditional phonemic orthography for the Received Pronunciation as well as the reformed phonemic orthographies for Australian and New Zealand English have been added for the sake of comparison.

Transcription systems
South African English Australian New Zealand RP Example words
This article Wells 1982[18] Lass 1984[19] Lass 1990[20] Branford 1994[21] Rogers 2014[22]
i fleece
i ɪ i happy, video
ɨ ɪ ɪ / ə / ɘ ɪ̈ ɪ ɪ ə ɪ kit
ə ɪ̈ / ə ə bit
ə / ɘ ə ə ə rabbit
ə accept, abbot
a sofa, better
ɵ ʊ ʊ̈ ʊ̈ ʊ / ʊ̈ ʊ ʊ ʊ ʊ foot
ʉː ʉː ʉː u ʉː ʉː goose
e e e e ɛ / e e e e e dress
øː ɜː ø̈ː ɜ ɜː øː ɜː nurse
ɔː ɔː ɔ ɔː thought, north
ɛ æ ɛ æ̝ æ / ɛ ɛ æ ɛ æ trap
ɜ ʌ ɜ ɜ / ɐ ɐ ʌ a a ʌ strut, unknown
a ɐ ä pap
ɑ ɒ ɒ̈ ɒ̝̈ ɒ ɒ ɔ ɒ ɒ lot
ɑː ɑː ɑː / ɒː ɑ̟ː ɑ ɑ ɑː palm, start
əɪ əj æɪ æɪ face
ɐː äɪ / äː ɑɪ price
ɔɪ ɔɪ ɔɪ ɔj ɔɪ choice
œʊ əʊ œ̈ɤ̈ əw / ʌː əʉ əʊ goat
ɐʊ ɑ̈ː ɑ̈ɤ ɑw æɔ æʊ mouth
ɪə ɪə ɪə ɪə near
ʉə ʊə ʊ̈ə ʊə ʉːə ʉə ʊə cure
ʉː fury



  • In Broad White South African English, voiceless plosives tend to be unaspirated in all positions, which serves as a marker of this subvariety. This is usually thought to be an Afrikaans influence.[23][24]
  • General and Cultivated varieties aspirate /p, t, k/ before a stressed syllable, unless they are followed by an /s/ within the same syllable.[23][24]
    • Speakers of the General variety can strongly affricate the syllable-final /t/ to [ts], so that wanting /ˈwɑntɨŋ/ can be pronounced [ˈwɑntsɪŋ].[25]
  • /t, d/ are normally alveolar. In the Broad variety, they tend to be dental [, ]. This pronunciation also occurs in older speakers of the Jewish subvariety of General SAE.[23][24]

Fricatives and affricates[edit]

  • /x/ occurs only in words borrowed from Afrikaans and Khoisan languages, such as gogga /ˈxoxa/ 'insect'. Many speakers realise /x/ as uvular [χ], a sound which is more common in Afrikaans.[23]
  • /θ/ may be realised as [f] in Broad varieties (see Th-fronting), but it is more accurate to say that it is a feature of Afrikaans English. This is especially common word-finally (as in myth [mɨf]).[23][24]
  • In the Indian variety, the labiodental fricatives /f, v/ are realised without audible friction, i.e. as approximants [ʋ̥, ʋ].[26]
  • In General and Cultivated varieties, intervocalic /h/ may be voiced, so that ahead can be pronounced [əˈɦed].[27]
  • There is not a full agreement about the voicing of /h/ in Broad varieties:
    • Lass (2002) states that:
      • Voiced [ɦ] is the normal realisation of /h/ in Broad varieties.[27]
      • It is often deleted, e.g. in word-initial stressed syllables (as in house), but at least as often, it is pronounced even if it seems deleted. The vowel that follows the [ɦ] allophone in the word-initial syllable often carries a low or low rising tone, which, in rapid speech, can be the only trace of the deleted /h/. That creates potentially minimal tonal pairs like oh (neutral [ʌʊ˧] or high falling [ʌʊ˦˥˩], phonemically /œʊ/) vs. hoe (low [ʌʊ˨] or low rising [ʌʊ˩˨], phonemically /hœʊ/). In General, these are normally pronounced [œː] and [hœː], without any tonal difference.[27]
    • Bowerman (2004) states that in Broad varieties close to Afrikaans English, /h/ is voiced [ɦ] before a stressed vowel.[23]


  • General and Broad varieties have a wine–whine merger. However, some speakers of Cultivated SAE (particularly the elderly) still distinguish /hw/ from /w/, so that which /hwɪtʃ/ is not homophonous with witch /wɪtʃ/.[28][29]
  • /l/ has two allophones:
    • Clear (neutral or somewhat palatalised) [l] in syllable-initial and intervocalic positions (as in look [lɵk] and polar [ˈpœːlə]).[28][29]
      • In Cultivated variety, clear [l] is often also used word-finally when another word begins with a vowel (as in call up [koːl ɜp], which in General and Broad is pronounced [koːɫ ɜp]).[28][29]
    • Velarised [] (or uvularised []) in pre-consonantal and word-final positions.[28][29]
      • One source states that the dark /l/ has a "hollow pharyngealised" quality [lˤ],[25] rather than velarised or uvularised.
  • In the Broad variety, the sequences /ɨn/ and /ɨl/ tend not to form syllabic [n̩] and [l̩], so that button /ˈbɜtɨn/ and middle /ˈmɨdɨl/ are phonetically [ˈbɜtɨn] and [ˈmɨdɯl] (compare General [ˈbɜtn̩] and [ˈmɨdl̩]). John Wells analyses the broad pronunciation of these words as having a secondarily stressed schwa in the last syllable: /ˈbɜtˌɨn/, /ˈmɨdˌɨl/.[4]
  • In Cultivated and General varieties, /r/ is an approximant, usually postalveolar or (less commonly) retroflex. In emphatic speech, Cultivated speakers may realise /r/ as a (often long) trill [r]. Older speakers of the Cultivated variety may realise intervocalic /r/ as a tap [ɾ] (as in very [ˈveɾɪ]), a feature which is becoming increasingly rare.[28][30]
  • Broad SAE realises /r/ as a tap [ɾ], sometimes even as a trill [r] - a pronunciation which is at times stigmatised as a marker of this variety. The trill [r] is more commonly considered a feature of the second language Afrikaans English variety.[28][29]
  • Another possible realisation of /r/ is uvular trill [ʀ], which has been reported to occur in the Cape Flats dialect.[31]
  • South African English is non-rhotic, except for some Broad varieties spoken in the Cape Province (typically in -er suffixes, as in writer [ˈraɪtɚ]). It appears that postvocalic /r/ is entering the speech of younger people under the influence of American English.[28][29]
  • Linking /r/ (as in for a while /foː ɨ ˈwaɪl/) is used only by some speakers: [foːɹ ə ˈwaːl].[28]
  • There is not a full agreement about intrusive /r/ (as in law and order) in South African English:
  • In contexts where many British and Australian accents use the intrusive /r/, speakers of South African English who do not use the intrusive /r/ create an intervocalic hiatus. In these varieties, phrases such as law and order /ˈloː ɨn ˈoːdɨ/ can be subject to the following processes:[28]
    • Vowel deletion: [ˈloːn ˈoːdə];[28]
    • Adding a semivowel corresponding to the preceding vowel: [ˈloːwɨn ˈoːdə];[28]
    • Inserting a glottal stop: [ˈloːʔən ˈoːdə]. This is typical of Broad varieties.[28]
  • Before a high front vowel, /j/ undergoes fortition to [ɣ] in Broad and some of the General varieties, so that yeast can be pronounced [ɣiːst].[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 613, 615.
  2. ^ Bowerman (2004), pp. 936–938.
  3. ^ Lass (1990).
  4. ^ a b c Wells (1982), p. 613.
  5. ^ a b Lass (1990), p. 276.
  6. ^ a b Lass (2002), p. 115.
  7. ^ Bekker (2008), pp. 83–84.
  8. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 612–613.
  9. ^ Lass (2002), pp. 113–115.
  10. ^ Wells (1982), p. 612.
  11. ^ Lass (2002), p. 119.
  12. ^ a b Lass (1990), p. 277.
  13. ^ Lass (2002), pp. 115–116.
  14. ^ Bowerman (2004), p. 937.
  15. ^ Lass (1990), p. 278.
  16. ^ Lass (2002), p. 116.
  17. ^ Lass (1990), pp. 278–280.
  18. ^ Wells (1982), p. 616.
  19. ^ Lass (1984), pp. 80, 89–90, 96, 102.
  20. ^ Lass (1990), p. 274.
  21. ^ Branford (1994), pp. 473, 476.
  22. ^ Rogers (2014), p. 117.
  23. ^ a b c d e f Bowerman (2004), p. 939.
  24. ^ a b c d Lass (2002), p. 120.
  25. ^ a b Collins & Mees (2013), p. 194.
  26. ^ Mesthrie (2004), p. 960.
  27. ^ a b c d Lass (2002), p. 122.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Bowerman (2004), p. 940.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Lass (2002), p. 121.
  30. ^ Lass (2002), pp. 120–121.
  31. ^ Finn (2004), p. 976.


  • Bekker, Ian (2008). The vowels of South African English (PDF) (Ph.D.). north-West University, Potchefstroom.
  • Bowerman, Sean (2004), "White South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English, vol. 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 931–942, ISBN 3-11-017532-0
  • Branford, William (1994). "9: English in South Africa". In Burchfield, Robert (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 5: English in Britain and Overseas: Origins and Development. Cambridge University Press. pp. 430–496. ISBN 0-521-26478-2.
  • Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2013) [First published 2003], Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students (3rd ed.), Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-50650-2
  • Finn, Peter (2004), "Cape Flats English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English, vol. 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 964–984, ISBN 3-11-017532-0
  • Lass, Roger (1984), "Vowel System Universals and Typology: Prologue to Theory", Phonology Yearbook, 1, Cambridge University Press: 75–111, doi:10.1017/S0952675700000300, JSTOR 4615383
  • — (1990), "A 'standard' South African vowel system", in Ramsaran, Susan (ed.), Studies in the Pronunciation of English: A Commemorative Volume in Honour of A.C. Gimson, Routledge, pp. 272–285, ISBN 978-0-41507180-2
  • — (2002), "South African English", in Mesthrie, Rajend (ed.), Language in South Africa, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521791052
  • Mesthrie, Rajend (2004), "Indian South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English, vol. 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 953–963, ISBN 3-11-017532-0
  • Rogers, Henry (2014) [First published 2000], The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics, Essex: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-582-38182-7
  • Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Vol. 3: Beyond the British Isles (pp. i–xx, 467–674). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511611766. ISBN 0-52128541-0 .

Further reading[edit]