“Problematic phonemes” and German /ɛ:/: An acoustic analysis

Kristin Predeck, Aleese Block, Carlee Arnett


The decision to include or exclude phonemes in the description of a language is not always straightforward; presentations of the phoneme inventory of Modern Standard German (MSG) often include a discussion of why /ɛ:/ is problematic as a phoneme. This study describes the acoustic realization of /ɛ:/ in comparison to /e:/ in spoken German, specifically South Westphalian. 39 native German speakers produced /ɛ:/ and /e:/ in hVt non-word frames and vowel productions were measured for: (1) first and second formants from the steady state of the vowel, (2) duration, and (3) fundamental frequency (f0). Measurements were analyzed with a logistic regression model using the glm package in R. The model showed that while the main effects of F2, duration, and pitch were not significant, F1 was; speakers reliably produced /ɛ:/ lower in the vowel space than /e:/, but not fronter. This preliminary investigation into the acoustic realizations of /ɛ:/ and /e:/ through the lens of the debate on whether these two sounds truly are phonetically and phonemically contrastive is a first step toward truly understanding these two sounds within the larger phonemic inventory of MSG. We hope that this study will reopen a discussion on this topic and help answer the question of whether /ɛ:/ really is a problematic phoneme.


phonetics; vowel production; phonemic contrast; German

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v6i1.4970

Copyright (c) 2021 Kristin Predeck, Aleese Block, Carlee Arnett

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