South African ‘ee’

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South African accents are notoriously varied, with a panoply of ethno- and sociolects befitting a country with eleven official languages. But almost all South African English is marked by its pronunciation of the ‘ee‘ in ‘fleece.’

In most English accents, the ‘ee’ vowel has a slight on-glide. That means that there is little ‘opening vowel’ before the main event, often close to the ‘i’ in ‘kit.’ For many accents (for example General American) this glide is so short that you wouldn’t notice it unless you were listening carefully. For other accents (such as Australian), the vowel is bit longer, making it sound slightly like the vowel in ‘face.’

South Africa, however, regardless of which particular sociolect we are talking about, tends to lack this glide. ‘Ee’ in ZA is usually a pure monophthong, much like the /i/ in Spanish ‘sí,’ or French ‘oui.’ I find it especially noticeable at the end of words such as ‘probably‘ or ‘already‘ (final ‘-y’ almost always has a somewhat more lax vowel in other accents).

You’ll notice this frequently in words like ‘three,’ ‘believe,’ ‘Keys,’ and ‘the‘ in this interview with South African singer Johnny Clegg:

Fans of old recordings made by Daniel Jones will note that South African ‘ee’ often sounds remarkably close to Cardinal 1; that is, it sounds like a ‘pure /i/’ sound. In most English accents, the sound in ‘me‘ or ‘fleece’ is at least a tad more lax. The Rainbow Nation is unusual in this respect.

A South African posted here earlier today saying, ‘We dont sound like anyone really.’ Between this unusual ‘ee’ sound, the unusual ‘ar’ in ‘car‘ (which is again, closer to a cardinal vowel than in most accents), and other little quirks, there is something to this sentiment. South African English is wonderfully ususual.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to South African ‘ee’

  1. Jason Reid says:

    Old recording made by Daniel Jones (for fans):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UIAe4p2I74

    It’s funny that you use a French word as an example, because Jones was a teacher of the phonetics of French and I heard that his cardinal vowels were actually based on the vowel system of the French of his time.

    • That makes plenty of sense. Daniel Jones’ close and mid-close vowels were extremely close and extremely back/front, more akin to how they are in French than, say, American English. As I recall, JC Wells mentioned on his blog that UK phonetics students have a hard time with his /u/ for this very reason; it’s very different from the fronted and/or lax vowel typical of many British accents.

  2. IVV says:

    I’ve wondered about the on-glide. I don’t think it’s evident in the Western US (or at least the inland Californian I grew up with). It’s very noticeable to me among New Jerseyans, and one of the sources of the idea that -ing uses “long e” (-eeng) for me instead of “short i”. My long e is monophthongal, not diphthongal like it seems to be in the Northeast.

    • In most American accents, it’s so short that you don’t really notice it. It’s also more common in open syllables like ‘free’ than closed syllables like ‘beat.’

      I do however, agree that the glide seems less common in the Western States for some reason. I would say it’s due to the Spanish influence, except it seems equally true up in areas that aren’t overwhelmingly hispanic, like the Pacific Northwest and Utah.

  3. Sooryan FM says:

    In LA king is pronounced as keeng

    • That vowel actually strikes me as quite similar to the SA ‘ee.’ When Southwesterners say words like ‘pink’ or ‘thing,’ the vowel tends to be extremely close. This seems to be because it maintains the pure, short quality of the KIT vowel, even though it’s more tense.

      • IVV says:

        Exactly. We’ve had the -eeng discussion here before, and I’ve encountered it elsewhere. The big thing I see is that for KIT -ing speakers, they have trouble imagining being a FLEECE -ing speaker without “sounding Spanish” or some other European accent, or by lengthening the vowel considerably–things that a true FLEECE -ing speaker doesn’t do. We start with /i/, we stick with /i/. I do notice that the ee on-glide is present in most KIT -ing speakers though, and the “ee” sounds like a fully diphthongal “ih-ee” to me.

        The Western FLEECE vowel is not that way because of Spanish, though, that much I can tell you. You can find monophthongal tense FLEECE among the most Anglo residents out here, too.

      • Nate Connor says:

        I don’t know. The western American /i/ doesn’t sound any different from a typical English /i/ to my ear. Just looking at maps 10.15 and 10.16 in the Atlas of North American English (Labov et al.), which show the F1 and F2 of /i/, respectively, it looks very variable in the West. But I’m assuming that a monophthongal realization of /i/ would have a low F1 and a high F2, which might be a bad assumption to make because I suppose a monophthongal realization of /i/ could be fairly lax (although if it were too lax I wonder how it would be kept distinct from /ɪ/). The maps didn’t actually show whether a speaker had a monophthongal or diphthongal /i/.

        Erik R. Thomas, in a phonetic description of Southern American English, seems to say that even Southerners who have a diphthongal /i/ in slower speech and/or when the word containing /i/ is stressed have a monophthongal realization in fast speech and/or when the word containing /i/ is unstressed. It wouldn’t surprise if this was the case elsewhere too. So it would be hard to say whether a given speaker had a monophthongal or diphthongal /i/ on maps like the ones I was looking at; a lot of people probably vary between the two.

        • I don’t think low F1 and high F2 values would necessarily suggest a more monophthongal realization of /i/, although it depends on a lot of other factors. My impression, although I hesitate from making a blanket statement about it, is that while /i/ would probably have similar formant frequencies US-wide, it tends to be more monophthongal in the Western US. However, I admit that some of this may be my ‘Eastern’ bias: The /ɪi/ that characterizes many East Coast accents is arguably more the ‘odd duck’ here.

          Thomas’ description describes my own accent, although I’m not (exactly) a Southerner; my /i/ is more monophthongal in words like ‘beat’ and ‘probablY,’ but more of a diphthong in ‘free.’ A crucial difference between my accent an South African English, though, is that my ‘monophthongal’ /i/ is usually a tad more lax, while it seems to maintain its cardinal quality ZA.

          As I’m sure you know, it’s hard to talk about one factor in the allophony of /i/ without missing others: tense/lax, monophthong/diphthong, long/short, open/closed, etc.

        • Nate Connor says:

          Well it’s good you’re not an expert so I don’t have to listen to you. And Thomas says nothing about the difference between /i/ before voiceless consonants and /i/ elsewhere. You didn’t read what I said at all.

        • Nate,

          I admit my inclusion of ‘beat’ in that sentence is a bit out of the blue (my description of my own /i/ allophony was something of a separate thought, but regardless …) But I’m not unclear about what you’re saying re: Thomas’ work.

          I’m not quite sure what I’d one to offend you here, but let’s lay off the invective, please.

  4. Arlene Walsh says:

    I am an English speaking South African, but speak with a ‘different’ ‘softer’ ‘more English’ accent, not typically or at least broad South African. I would love to hear comments re my accent, which is puzzling to many both here and in the UK, let alone the USA!
    A person from the UK thought I came from the New Forest area, another thought I sounded like Jane Goodall! Could I record a piece and ask for comment as I myself am puzzled about why I speak the way I do – which is differnt from my parents and my siblings.

    • Sue says:

      It may be that you got your accent from either television, although it was late arriving in SA 1975 or listening to the radio.
      My sons fiancé has a slight American twang to it from watching tv, her Mum is South African and dad is British.
      I emmigrated to SA when I was 25 and lived in JHB for 13 years and now Durban for 20 years, everyone can tell immediately I’m from the UK. I was born and lived near to Windsor in the South East, but if I go back to the UK people ask where I’m from and family say I sound very South African. All three of our sons have my accent all born in SA and they have the same questions asked and people are quite surprised when they say they were born in SA.

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