Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Is /ə/ "real"?

"Is schwa a real phoneme?" asked a first year student, during a preliminary session preparing them for transcription in the second year. What an excellent question!

The issue arose because I had referred them to John Wells' standard lexical sets to describe English vowel sounds more easily. This is a list of English phonemes with keywords devised by Prof Wells and given in his three-volume book Accents of English (1982). Rather than trying to explain in articulatory terms what /ʊ/ is in comparison with /ʌ/, for example, they can be referred to as the FOOT and STRUT vowels respectively, and then discussion about them appearing (or not) in various accents of English can also be facilitated.

However, mid central unrounded vowel [ə] does not appear in this list ... which leads to the very intelligent question about its "realness".

The schwa vowel is the most commonly occurring vowel in reference accents such as RP or Standard Southern British English (SSBE). In articulatory terms, [ə] is a sound which can be produced by basically relaxing the articulators in the oral cavity and vocalising. From that point of view, it is certainly "real".

From a phonological point of view, however, whether /ə/ is a phoneme or not in English is more tricky. There are no single-syllable citation forms of words containing this vowel, so it is not possible to contrast it with other vowels in minimal pairs, as we would normally expect to do with a vowel phoneme (or any phoneme, for that matter) in order to test its linguistic significance/reality. E.g., we can compare the TRAP and START vowels in British English using minimal pairs such as hat /hæt/ and heart /hɑːt/ and demonstrate that, as the meaning of the word is changed by changing the vowel sound, they are therefore separate linguistic units in English. As it's not possible to do this with /ə/, this is probably why it doesn't appear in Wells' lexical sets.

Schwa is a vowel which only occurs in weak syllables in RP or SSBE and is, therefore, never stressed. This might mean you find it in a bi- or multi-syllabic word such as father /ˈfɑː.ðə/, about /əˈbaʊt/ or conglomeration /kəŋˌɡlɒm.əˈreɪ.ʃən/ (note it is also possible to have syllabic consonants in syllables one and five in the last word) or in something called "weak form words" (here's a nice post on the subject by David Brett).

Weak form words are a small group of one-syllable function words - determiners, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, modal and auxiliary verbs, etc. - which have a weak and a strong form. The weak form is the one which is most often used.  It is unstressed, and in many instances the word is realised with /ə/ as the vowel. Common weak form words containing schwa include but, and, the, her, of, can and that (when used as a subordinating conjunction) which are often pronounced /bət/, /ən/, /ðə/, /ə/, /əv/, /kən/ and /ðət/ respectively in connected speech.

The alternation between other vowels (sometimes referred to as "full vowels") and schwa results in the distinctive speech rhythm of English accents such as RP and SSBE; this rhythm is often referred to as "stress-timed" (here's a short definition from the British Council / BBC).

But back to whether schwa is a "real" English vowel or not. One could indeed claim that it is not a phoneme in English, as it merely replaces other vowels when they are realised in weak syllables.  If we compare e.g. economy /ɪˈkɒn.ə.mi/ and economic /ˌiː.kəˈnɒm.ɪk/, we can see that /ə/ is standing in for /ɒ/ in the third syllable in economy and the second syllable in economic. The stress patterns of these words are dependent on other factors - in this case, the suffix -ic causes the main stress in economic to be placed on the syllable prior to it, which is different from economy.

However, as it is such a prevalent vowel in reference accents, and such an important part of the pronunciation of those accents, it tends to be accepted as a vowel phoneme in lists of vowels for those accents.

There are, of course, accents of English which do not use /ə/ very much, if at all - particularly those which are developing in regions of the world where other languages do not use it. Here's an example of a poem in Nigerian English in which the speaker talks about [ðɪ ˈpæʃɒn ɒv ðɪ ˈpoːem] (the passion of the poem) instead of /ðə ˈpæʃən əv ðə ˈpəʊɪm/. If you listen to the poem, you'll hear that he uses very few schwa vowels.



Addendum 28/06/2013: Since posting this, I feel I should just add that the standard lexical sets do indeed include lettER /ˈlet.ə*/ - where * stands for possible linking /r/ - and commA /ˈkɒm.ə/ which cover schwa, and also happY /ˈhæp.i/, covering the weak close front unrounded vowel sometimes referred to as "schwee", but that these do not appear in the list I projected for students from Prof Wells's blog post.  The sets still do not have anything official to represent "schwoo", but what regularly gets used as an example of the weak close back rounded vowel (often rather mid-centralised and not very rounded) is thank yOU /ˈθæŋk ju/ and, as John Cowan suggests below, intO /ɪntu/.

18 comments:

  1. This would be a perfect time to introduce the weak-vowel lexical sets happY, commA, lettER, and the later intO. With happy-tensing now so prevalent, we also need one to handle the Weak Vowel Merger directly (previously happY did so); I propose chickEn.

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    1. This is looking familiar. Did John W ever write about those?

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    2. John Wells does have commA, lettER and happY in the Accents, but he doesn't have a set/label for "schwoo". Jack Windsor Lewis uses thankyOU, if memory serves. Bev Collins has bonUs for schwa.

      I wonder if nowadays "schwee" (happY) and "schwoo" are viable neutralisations at all. FLEECE and GOOSE would probably do (with a range of rhythmically conditioned realisations – from clearly diphthongal to non-syllabic). I believe Geoff Lindsey would agree.

      Just like John Cowan, I've felt SSBE could use a set covering weak syllables that allow both KIT and schwa, as in the first syllable of believe, release or the second of climate. Upton captures this variability (quite elegantly, I think; despite the diacritic) with the barred small capital I symbol. I once proposed "the privAte vowel" in an email to Jack Windsor Lewis. Another label I amused myself with was "the KIT/CUT vowel". The latter was inspired by G. Lindsey's suggestion that the Southern STRUT-schwa (phonetic) contrast is not worth teaching to non-native speakers (unless they can naturally maintain it). JW Lewis didn't like either of my suggestions, of course. He said 'Why not the kit/schwa (or better kit/Mz) slot if you really need such a term?'
      I still think we do, if we're going to use lexical sets and don't want to say things like "syllables that allow both schwa and KIT" every time.

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  2. What also strikes many foreigners is the latitude of /ə/ realisations in English. In my accent they vary from an almost close [ʊ]-like (though unrounded) vowel in cocoon to an almost open vowel in butter (where the two vowels are indistinguishable to my ear). This range comprises realisations of two quite distinct German phonemes, and of at least three Vietnamese phonemes.

    Do you really say /ˈfɑː.θə/?

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  3. Father: Good spot! No, I don't!! Changing that now ...

    Yes, I agree about the allophonic variation of schwa (assuming it's a phoneme). There was a nice study on this by Sarah Hawkins of Cambridge, I seem to remember.

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    1. In fact, there is quite a lot online about vowel-to-vowel coarticulation. Here's one of Prof Hawkins' co-authored articles on the subject (I hope you can get this): http://www.ling.cam.ac.uk/sarah/docs/hawkins_slater_icslp94.pdf

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  4. All very well, except that to Americans (who invented the term), "Ms." is always articulated with the stressed KIT vowel, just like "Mr.", "Mrs.", and "Miss". (Rhythmical shift may deprive the word of its accent, of course.) "Muzz" is a spelling pronunciation that sounds completely bizarre to my American ear.

    What makes chicken a nice example is that you can detect the absence of the WVM by asking "Are the two vowels the same?", and that there is no unwanted reinforcement from the spelling.

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    1. I have to admit I like chicken for the ə/ɪ "set".

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  5. Would you still hold the opinion that "[s]chwa is a vowel which only [sic] occurs in weak syllables in RP or SSBE" in view of the adverb 'just' being pronounced /dʒəst/ (see LPD3) or 'because' as /biˈkəz/ when e.g. A asks: "Why did you do this?" and B replies: "/biˈkəz/"?

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  6. Well, there's connected speech and there's rapid speech and there's idiolect ... I always tell my students that, in very rapid speech, anything can happen, and they have to be ready for that. For example, I does not officially have a weak form but it can certainly be realised with [ə] in very rapid speech. But just is a weak form word when operating as an adverb so can have schwa in any case, and because is one of those two-syllable conjunctions which would be a weak form if it only had one syllable.

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  7. 'just' and 'because' in the prons indicated can hardly be exclusively idiolectal if they appear in a pron dictionary because such a dictionary is not and ought not to be a collection of idiosyncrasies. Additionally, I have my doubts if these prons are induced by speed. Any of the weak form words can be pronounced in its reduced form without having to speak quickly.
    You also write that "[...] because is one of those two-syllable conjunctions which would be a weak form if it only had one syllable". Does this mean you opine that weak form words are all monosyllabic?

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    1. Yes, that's fair comment. I see a lot of the "rules" we apply to connected speech as being "guidelines" really. I try to communicate this to my students (not sure I always succeed).

      I think words like because could be included in the list of weak forms and I tell my students as much. The issue here is that we normally assume a word has to have a phonemically stressed syllable in it somewhere if it is more than one syllable, and a stressed syllable cannot contain /ə/, so what does one do with words like because? Both LPD and CEPD suggest the second syllable could be stressed even if it contains schwa, CEPD saying it is "unusual" for this reason. John (LPD) also refers to strong and weak forms of because, which chimes with my feelings about the word.

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    2. Insisting on there being a stressed syllable in any polysyllabic word is a somewhat restricted phonological and phonetic view because it belittles and disregards the sentence level; it is on this higher level that word stress assignment can and very often is overruled by rhythmic stress etc. From this point of view there's nothing unusual whatsoever about having a schwa in an unstressed syllable.

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    3. Correction: [...] there's nothing unusual whatsoever about having a schwa in a STRESSED syllable.

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    4. Certainly once one takes "sentence stress" into account I agree.

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