Yiddish has an unusually small vowel inventory for a Germanic language, which are generally notorious for their large number of vowel phonemes. Probably under the influence of the surrounding gentile Baltic and Slavic langauges, Yiddish contrasts only five full vowels (/ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ a/), a marginally phonemic reduced vowel ([ə]), and two or three diphthongs (/aɪ̯ ɔɪ̯/, with /ɛɪ̯/ only contrasted in some Lithuanian dialects, corresponding to /aɪ̯/ or /ɔɪ̯/ in the others, and re-introduced in English loanwords). There is also no phonemic vowel length, except marginally in dialects where /aɪ̯/ can sometimes be realized [aː] or /ɔɪ̯/ as [oː]. These transcriptions are broad--point is, a small quality-based 5-point cardinal vowel system in the middle of a famously vowel-happy language family.

I want to know, are there any other Germanic lects--language, dialects, etc.--which contrasts as few vowels as Yiddish does, or even fewer? I don't want to outright make the claim that "Yiddish has the fewest vowel phonemes of any Germanic langauge", because I'm no expert on Germanic dialectology. Does anyone know of any Germanic languages with vowel systems as simple as Yiddish or simpler?

EDIT: Qualified the 'no phonemic length' claim to note that some dialects do have [aː] and [oː] as realizations of /aɪ̯/ and /ɔɪ̯/, though the overall small number of phonemes remains unchanged. EDIT 2: Qualified claim that some dialects don't contrast /ɛɪ̯/--/ɛɪ̯/ is found in a number of English loanwords in colloquial American Yiddish, even in dialects which don't contrast historical /ɛɪ̯/, ex. די יונײטעד סטעיטן di Yunayted Steytn, the United States.

  • Most of the phonological tendencies of Yiddish, like Entrundung, are found in closely related Germanic dialects. It compensates for loss of vowel length contrasts with diphthongs. Yiddish isn't super divergent phonologically, it's rather preserving characteristics of Western Central continental Germanic dialects of the early 2nd millennium. May 16, 2021 at 6:38
  • Just to be precise: Standard Yiddish and (average) Lithuanian Yiddish have 8 vowel contrasts /a,ɛ,i,ɔ,u,aɪ̯,eɪ̯,ɔɪ̯/. Central Yiddish, perhaps the most widespread dialect (group) today, has 11 vowels as it contrasts length not only in /a/ ≠ /a:/ (</aɪ̯/) (and sometimes /ɔ/ ≠ /o:/), but also /i/ ≠ /i:/ (cf. bin "(I) am" vs. bi:n "bee") (the contrast /u/ ≠ /u:/ is less certain). Ukranian dialects are more variable, but have ca. 8 vowels as well
    – alephreish
    Nov 14, 2022 at 15:42

1 Answer 1


Tok Pisin and East African (Kenyan, Tanzanian) English both have the 5-vowel systems /i u e o a/, and no vowel length contrast, both features of Swahili.

  • 4
    Do you consider Tok Pisin a Germanic language? Apr 23, 2021 at 6:25
  • A typical problem with genetically-mixed languages. One can always filter out creoles with a disclaimer "excluding creoles".
    – user6726
    Apr 23, 2021 at 15:10
  • 3
    Oh brilliant, thank you! I personally wouldn't count Tok Pisin or Germanic-based creoles as Germanic languages per se for the purposes of this question, but East African English is definitely fair game. From a very shallow Google investigation it looks like diphthongs in Kenyan English tend to be monophthongized, which would certainly make an even smaller vowel system than Yiddish. A dank far der hilf! :^)
    – Khove
    Apr 23, 2021 at 17:26

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