Monday, 5 December 2011

velar or uvular?

Commenting on my recent posting about Tokyo Sexwale (22 Nov), Roger Lass writes
…You mention the ‘velar fricative’ in Afrikaans. I must say that in over 25 years here in contact with Afrikaans I've rarely heard one except in a few hyper-posh varieties, or occasionally (but rarely) before front vowels in an uncommon version of the German ‘ich/ach rule’. The normal reflex of the early Germanic voiced back fricative, spelled <g>, is virtually always uvular, either a fricative or especially in initial position before a stressed vowel a voiceless uvular trill. This falls in with the voiceless back fricative < IE *k, so uvulars in goed, nag. Very similar if not identical to what is often called /x/ in Dutch but is also uvular in most varieties.

Afrikaans generally does not palatalise this before front vowels, but keeps it uvular, as in my experience do standard Dutch and Yiddish. All are languages that have a uvular not velar fricative (in Yiddish of course only from Germanic and Slavic voiceless back fricatives). It appears that uvulars may not be sensitive to palatal influence because of tongue shape. I've also noticed that many varieties of German, more than not in my experience, have a not very noisy uvular but definitely not velar fricative for <ch>, which does palatalise. As I recall, but am open to correction, there are varieties of Swiss German with a uvular trill for <ch>, and they don't palatalise.

In SA English speakers saying Sexwale (as well as Afrikaans loans with the same segment) have a uvular. The same is true of English speakers, in America, the UK and SA with Yiddish loans having this segment.

Thanks, Roger, for these observations.

I’d like to add two points: one about transcriptional practice, one about the facts.

The 1949 IPA Principles booklet, from which I quoted a few lines in last Wednesday’s blog about a (30 Nov), also has this (p. 12-13):
As with vowels, it is desirable to substitute more familiar consonant letters for less familiar ones, when such substitution can be made without causing ambiguity. … In accordance with [this] principle … the sound χ can generally be represented by the letter x. This cannot, however, be done in such languages as Eskimo or Kabardian, where the velar and uvular sounds occur as separate phonemes.
The 1949 booklet contains transcribed specimens of both Dutch and Afrikaans, both using the symbol x without further qualification.

Fifty years later, in the 1999 IPA Handbook, Carlos Gussenhoven says this about Dutch:
Roughly south of a line Rotterdam-Nijmegen, which is marked by the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Waal, /x, ɣ/ are velar, while to the north the corresponding voiceless fricative is post-velar or uvular.

And let’s not forget that velar—uvular is a continuum rather than an either/or disjunction.

Erg goed!


  1. The way I pronounce German (I grew up bilingual in Danish and Swabian, with the former as the dominant language), /x/ is clearly uvular after /a/ (e.g., in 'ach'), but it's much closer to a velar point of articulation after the other back vowels (e.g., in 'doch', 'hoch' and 'Buch').

  2. This is what Collins and Mees say about Dutch /x/ in their Phonetics of English and Dutch (which, BTW, is excellent):

    The back of the tongue makes a light contact with the rear of the velum. The exact point of articulation varies, but is probably more precisely described as post-velar [x̠] or pre-uvular [χ̟]. Typically, D[utch] /x/ as realised in (NL) ABN has a very energetic articulation with considerable scrapiness. In other areas (e.g. Southern Netherlands, Belgium), /x/ is made further forward, either true velar [x] or post-palatal [ç̠], and is articulated less energetically. These articu-
    lations are popularly termed the zachte g.

  3. Arrgh. Diacritic fiasco. I should have known.

    First [x] retracted; [χ] advanced; second [x] plain; [ç] retracted. As is evident from the description.

  4. John, I've been studying the articulation of Swedish and Inuit uvulars on X-ray motion films (the southernmost provinces of Sweden have uvular r, West Greenlandic Inuit have a range of uvulars from fricative to sonorant). The constriction turns out to be in the upper pharynx, the same place where the vocal tract is narrowed for [o]-like vowels.

    The best reference I can give at the moment is (copy all on one line)

    The article can be read online or downloaded as pdf.

    Roger Lass's observation that uvulars don't palatalize makes sense - it's a long way from the pharynx to the hard palate. So I personally doubt there's a continuum between velar and uvular. The uvula is like your little finger dangling there, with open channels either side where air can always flow freely, so I've never understood how stops fricatives or trills could work there.

    When velars are palatalized, the tongue body rolls along the palate, from the velum to the hard palate in sequences like ..aki.. and from the hard palate to the velum in ..ika.. I had a paper on that at the Stockholm ICPhSc about 15 years ago.

    I strongly suspect I have a uvular allophone for /k/ adjacent to /o/ in words like 'awkward'. In (nonrhotic) 'corkscrew' I have uvular, uvular, velar respectively for three instances of /k/.

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