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In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (//, rarely // or //; sometimes spelled shwa) is a vowel sound denoted by the IPA symbol ⟨ə⟩, placed in the central position of the vowel chart. In English and some other languages, it represents the mid central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded), produced when the lips, tongue, and jaw are completely relaxed, such as the vowel sound of the ⟨a⟩ in the English word about.
|See also mid central vowel|
In English, some long-established phonetic transcription systems assert that the mid central vowel as an unstressed vowel and transcribed with schwa (ə) is always a different vowel sound from the open-mid back unrounded vowel as a stressed vowel and transcribed with turned v (ʌ), although they may recognize allophony between the pair. As Geoff Lindsey explains, within these systems, it is said that "schwa is never stressed"; but other authorities (including Lindsey himself) recognize that in some varieties of English, such as General American English, the stressed vowel and the unstressed vowel are the same sound, and therefore the "never stressed" dictum is false. Lindsey gives examples of major dictionaries that use each system.
Sometimes the term schwa can be used for any epenthetic vowel. Across languages, schwa vowels are commonly deleted in some instances, such as in Hindi, North American English, French and Modern Hebrew. In phonology, syncope is the process of deleting unstressed sounds, particularly unstressed vowels such as schwa.
The term schwa was introduced by German linguists in the 19th century from the Hebrew shva (שְׁוָא IPA: [ʃva], classical pronunciation: shəwāʼ [ʃə̑wɔː], the name of the niqqud sign used to indicate the phoneme. It was first used in English texts in the early 1890s.
The symbol ⟨ə⟩ was used first by Johann Andreas Schmeller for the reduced vowel at the end of the German language term Gabe. Alexander John Ellis, in his Palaeotype alphabet, used it for the similar English sound in but //. The symbol is an ⟨e⟩ rotated by 180 degrees. A subscript small schwa (in Unicode as U+2094 ₔ LATIN SUBSCRIPT SMALL LETTER SCHWA) is used in phonetic transcription of Indo-European languages.
In English, schwa is the most common vowel sound. It is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Depending on dialect, it may be written using any of the following letters:
- ⟨a⟩, as in about [əˈbaʊ̯t]
- ⟨e⟩, as in taken [ˈtʰeɪ̯kən]
- ⟨i⟩, as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
- ⟨o⟩, as in memory [ˈmɛməɹi]
- ⟨u⟩, as in supply [səˈpʰlaɪ̯]
- ⟨y⟩, as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
- unwritten, as in rhythm [ˈɹɪðəm]
In General American English, schwa occurs in both stressed and unstressed syllables, while in Received Pronunciation schwa only occurs in unstressed syllables. For example, the word above is pronounced [əˈbəv] in General American English and [əˈbʌv] in Received Pronunciation. Confusingly, some dictionaries use ⟨ʌ⟩ to represent a stressed schwa in American English (as well as representing the open-mid back unrounded vowel in Received Pronunciation). Dictionaries that do this include the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary and the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. Dictionaries that use ⟨ə⟩ for schwa regardless of whether it is stressed or unstressed include the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English.
In New Zealand English, the high front lax vowel (as in the word bit //) has shifted open and back to sound like schwa, and both stressed and unstressed schwas exist. To a certain extent, that is true for South African English as well.
In General American English, schwa and /ɜː/ are the two vowel sounds that can be r-colored (rhotacized); r-colored schwa is used in words with unstressed ⟨er⟩ syllables, such as dinner. Some forms of American English have the tendency to delete a schwa when it appears in a mid-word syllable that comes after the stressed syllable. Kenstowicz (1994) states, "American English schwa deletes in medial posttonic syllables". He gives as examples words such as sep(a)rate (as an adjective), choc(o)late, cam(e)ra and elab(o)rate (as an adjective), where the schwa (represented by the letters in parentheses) has a tendency to be deleted. Other examples include fam(i)ly ( listen), ev(e)ry ( listen), and diff(e)rent ( listen). See also stress and vowel reduction in English.
Examples from other languagesEdit
In Albanian, schwa is represented by the letter ⟨ë⟩, which is also one of the letters of the Albanian alphabet, coming right after the letter ⟨e⟩. It can be stressed like in words i ëmbël /i əmbəl/ and ëndërr /əndər/ ('sweet' and 'dream', respectively).
Many Caucasian languages and some Uralic languages (like Komi) also use phonemic schwa, and allow schwas to be stressed. In Armenian, schwa is represented by the letter ⟨ը⟩ (capital ⟨Ը⟩). It is occasionally word-initial but usually word-final, as a form of the definite article. Unwritten schwa sounds are also inserted to split initial consonant clusters; for example, ճնճղուկ (čnčłuk) [t͡ʃənt͡ʃəˈʁuk] 'sparrow'. In the Azerbaijani alphabet, the schwa character ⟨ə⟩ is used, but to represent the /æ/ sound.
In Dutch, the digraph ⟨ij⟩ in the suffix -lijk [lək], as in waarschijnlijk [ʋaːrˈsxɛinlək] ('probably'), is pronounced as a schwa, while the independent word lijk is never a schwa. The article een (meaning 'a' or 'an') is pronounced using the schwa, [ən], while the number een ('one') is pronounced [e:n], which is why it's also written as één. And if an ⟨e⟩ falls at the ultimate (or penultimate) place before a consonant in Dutch words and is unstressed, it may become a schwa in some accents, as in the verb ending -en (lopen) and the diminutive suffix -tje(s) (tafeltje(s)).
In German, schwa is represented by the letter ⟨e⟩ and occurs only in unstressed syllables, as in gegessene. The vowel alternates freely with syllabic consonants /l, m, n/, as in Segel [ˈzeːgəl – ˈzeːglˌ] 'sail'. It also alternates with its absence, as in Segel 'sail' – Segl-er 'sailor'. Thirdly, it may be dropped for rhythmical and other stylistic reasons as in Aug' um Auge, Zahn um Zahn 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'.
Schwa is not native to Bavarian dialects of German spoken in Southern Germany and Austria. Vowels that are realized as schwa in Standard German change to /-e/, /-ɐ/, or /-ɛ/.
Schwa is normally represented in Yiddish by the Hebrew letter ⟨ע⟩ (Ayin) and, as in German, occurs only in unstressed syllables, as in געפֿילטע פֿיש (gefilte fish) /ɡəˈfɪltə fɪʃ/ ('stuffed fish'). In words derived from Hebrew, which retain their original orthography but undergo significant phonological change, schwa may be represented by another letter, as in רבי (rebe) /ˈrɛbə/ ('rabbi'), or by no letter at all, as in שבת (shabes) [ˈʃa.bəs] ('Shabbat').
Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languagesEdit
In Hindi grammar Schwa deletion is known as swaraaghaat स्वराघात
The inherent vowel in the Devanagari script, an abugida used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali and Sanskrit, is a schwa, written ⟨अ⟩ either in isolation or word-initially. In most Sanskrit-based languages, the schwa ⟨अ⟩ is the implied vowel after every consonant and so has no didactic marks. For example, in Hindi, the character ⟨ क ⟩ is pronounced /kə/ without marking, but ⟨ के ⟩ is pronounced /ke/ (like "kay") with a marking. Although the Devanagari script is used as a standard to write Modern Hindi, the schwa (/ə/, sometimes written as /ɑ/) implicit in each consonant of the script is "obligatorily deleted" at the end of words and in certain other contexts. The phenomenon has been termed the "schwa deletion rule" of Hindi. One formalization of the rule has been summarized as ə → ∅ /VC_CV. In other words, when a vowel-preceded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, the schwa inherent in the first consonant is deleted. However, the formalization is inexact and incomplete (it sometimes deletes a schwa that exists, and it fails to delete some schwas that it should) and so can yield errors. Schwa deletion is computationally important because it is essential to building text-to-speech software for Hindi.
As a result of schwa syncope, the correct Hindi pronunciation of many words differs from that expected from a literal rendering of Devanagari. For instance, राम is Rām (expected: Rāma), रचना is Rachnā (expected: Rachanā), वेद is Vēd (expected: Vēda) and नमकीन is Namkīn (expected: Namakīna).
Correct schwa deletion is critical also because the same Devanagari letter sequence can sometimes be pronounced two different ways in Hindi depending on the context: failure to delete the appropriate schwas can then change the meaning. For instance, the sequence धड़कने in दिल धड़कने लगा ("the heart started beating") and in दिल की धड़कनें ("beats of the heart") is identical prior to the nasalization in the second usage. However, it is pronounced dhadak.ne in the first and dhad.kaneṁ in the second.
While native speakers correctly pronounce the sequence differently in different contexts, non-native speakers and voice-synthesis software can make them "sound very unnatural", making it "extremely difficult for the listener" to grasp the intended meaning.
In Madurese, an ⟨a⟩ in some words, usually in non-final position, would be pronounced as the schwa. When writing Madurese in its traditional abugida, Hanacaraka, such words would not be written with a vowel diacritic denoting a schwa. Nowadays, even after the Madurese people have adopted the Latin alphabet, such writing fashion is still used. Examples are:
- Jhabah (/dʒəbəh/) – Javanese, Java Island
- sagara (/sagərə/) – sea, ocean
- lajar (/lədʒər/) – to sail
- Sorbaja (/sorbədʒə/) – Surabaya
- Madura (/madurə/) – Madurese, Madura Island
- Bulan (/bulən/) – Moon
In the Indonesian variant, schwa is always unstressed except for Jakarta-influenced informal Indonesian, whose schwa can be stressed. In final closed syllables in the formal register, the vowel is ⟨a⟩ (the final syllable is usually the second syllable since most Indonesian root words consist of two syllables). In some cases, the vowel ⟨a⟩ is pronounced as a stressed schwa (only when the vowel ⟨a⟩ is located between two consonants in a syllable), but never in formal speech:
- datang ('come'), pronounced [dɑːˈtʌŋ], and often informally written as dateng.
- kental ('viscous'), pronounced [kənˈtʌl].
- hitam ('black'), pronounced [hiˈtʌm], informally written as item.
- dalam ('deep', 'in'), pronounced [dɑːˈlʌm], often written as dalem.
- malam ('night'), pronounced [mʌˈlʌm], informally written as malem.
Indonesian orthography formerly used unmarked ⟨e⟩ only for the schwa sound, and the full vowel /e/ was written ⟨é⟩. Malaysian orthography, on the other hand, formerly indicated the schwa with ⟨ĕ⟩ (called pĕpĕt), and unmarked ⟨e⟩ stood for /e/.
In the 1972 spelling reform that unified Indonesian and Malaysian spelling conventions (Ejaan yang Disempurnakan, regulated by MABBIM), it was agreed to use neither diacritic. There is no longer an orthographic distinction between /ə/ and /e/; both are spelled with an unmarked ⟨e⟩. For example, the word for 'wheeled vehicle' in Indonesia and Malaysia, which was formerly spelled keréta in Indonesia and kĕreta in Malaysia, is now spelled kereta in both countries. This means that the pronunciation of any given letter ⟨e⟩ in both Indonesian and Malaysian variants is not immediately obvious to the learner and must be learned separately. However, in a number of Indonesian dictionaries and lesson books for foreign learners, the notation is preserved to help learners.
In Southern Malaysian pronunciation, which is predominant in common Malaysian media, the final letter represents schwa, and final ⟨-ah⟩ stands for /a/. The dialect of Kedah in northern Malaysia, however, pronounces final ⟨-a⟩ as /a/ also. In loanwords, a non-final short /a/ may become schwa in Malay such as Mekah (<Arabic Makkah, Malay pronunciation [ˈməkah]).
In European and some African dialects of Portuguese, the schwa occurs in many unstressed syllables that end in ⟨e⟩, such as noite ('night'), tarde ('afternoon'), pêssego ('peach'), and pecado ('sin'). In Neapolitan, a final, unstressed ⟨a⟩, and unstressed ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ are pronounced as a schwa: pìzza ('pizza'), semmàna ('week'), purtuàllo ('orange').
In the Eastern dialects of Catalan, including the standard variety, based in the dialect spoken in and around Barcelona, schwa (called vocal neutra, 'neutral vowel') is represented by the letters ⟨a⟩ or ⟨e⟩ in unstressed syllables: pare /ˈpaɾə/ ('father'), Barcelona /bəɾsəˈlonə/. In the Balearic Islands, the sound is sometimes also in stressed vowels, pera /ˈpəɾə/ ('pear').
In Romanian, schwa is represented by the letter ⟨Ă⟩, ⟨ă⟩, which is considered a letter on its own (the second in the Romanian alphabet). It can be stressed in words in which it is the only vowel such as păr /pər/ ('hair' or 'pear tree') or văd /vəd/ ('I see'). Some words which also contain other vowels can have the stress on ⟨ă⟩: cărțile /ˈkərt͡sile/ ('the books') and odăi /oˈdəj/ ('rooms').
Schwa is deleted in certain positions in French.
In Kashubian schwa is represented by the letter ⟨ë⟩, it derives from historical short u and i vowels, and thus may alternate with u and i stemming from historical long vowels in different grammatical forms of a given word. It never appears word initially, except for the word ë (and) and its derivates. In most dialects of Russian unstressed ⟨a⟩ and ⟨o⟩ reduce to either [ɐ] or schwa.
In the Bulgarian language, schwa exists as a sound. It is written with the letter ъ. In Serbo-Croatian, schwa is not a phoneme, but it is often colloquially used to pronounce names of consonants. For example, the official name of the letter ⟨p⟩ is pronounced /pe(ː)/, but in everyday speech, it is often called /pə/.
The schwa is denoted in Welsh by the letter ⟨y⟩ to represent schwa, which is a phonemic vowel rather than the realisation of an unstressed vowel. It is a very common letter as y is the definite article with yr being the definite article if the following word starts with a vowel. For example, the word ysbyty ("hospital") is pronounced /əsˈbəti/.
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- Oxford English Dictionary, under "schwa".
- Lindsey, Geoff (2022-07-25). "'Schwa is never stressed' – FALSE". Dr Geoff Lindsey YouTube channel. Retrieved 2022-10-12.
- "schwa". Dictionary.com Unabridged (Online). n.d.
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- Anderson, Deborah; Everson, Michael (2004-06-07). "L2/04-191: Proposal to encode six Indo-Europeanist phonetic characters in the UCS" (PDF).
- Rachael-Anne Knight(2012), Phonetics: A course book, Cambridge University Press, p.71.
- "above". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
- Wells, J. C. (2000). Longman pronunciation dictionary (New ed.). Harlow [England]: Pearson Education Ltd. p. xv. ISBN 9780582364677.
- Kenstowicz, Michael J. (1994), Phonology in generative grammar, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-55786-426-0
- Wiese, Richard (1986). "Schwa and the structure of words in German". Linguistics. 24 (4): 697–724. doi:10.1515/ling.19184.108.40.2067. S2CID 144026023.
- Larry M. Hyman; Victoria Fromkin; Charles N. Li (1988), Language, speech, and mind (Volume 1988, Part 2), Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0-415-00311-3,
...The implicit /a/ is not read when the symbol appears in word-final position or in certain other contexts where it is obligatorily deleted (via the so-called schwa-deletion rule which plays a crucial role in Hindi word phonology...
- Tej K. Bhatia (1987), A history of the Hindi grammatical tradition: Hindi-Hindustani grammar, grammarians, history and problems, BRILL, ISBN 90-04-07924-6,
...Hindi literature fails as a reliable indicator of the actual pronunciation because it is written in the Devanagari script... the schwa syncope rule which operates in Hindi...
- Monojit Choudhury, Anupam Basu & Sudeshna Sarkar (July 2004), "A Diachronic Approach for Schwa Deletion in Indo Aryan Languages" (PDF), Proceedings of the Workshop of the ACL Special Interest Group on Computational Phonology (SIGPHON), Association for Computations Linguistics,
...schwa deletion is an important issue for grapheme-to-phoneme conversion of IAL, which in turn is required for a good Text-to-Speech synthesizer...
- Naim R. Tyson; Ila Nagar (2009), "Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in Hindi text-to-speech synthesis", International Journal of Speech Technology, (12:15–25): 15–25, doi:10.1007/s10772-009-9040-x, S2CID 8792448,
...Without the appropriate deletion of schwas, any speech output would sound unnatural. Since the orthographical representation of Devanagari gives little indication of deletion sites, modern TTS systems for Hindi implemented schwa deletion rules based on the segmental context where schwa appears...
- Monojit Choudhury & Anupam Basu (July 2004), "A Rule Based Schwa Deletion Algorithm for Hindi" (PDF), Proceedings of the International Conference on Knowledge-Based Computer Systems,
...Without any schwa deletion, not only the two words will sound very unnatural, but it will also be extremely difficult for the listener to distinguish between the two, the only difference being nasalization of the e at the end of the former. However, a native speaker would pronounce the former as dha.D-kan-eM and the later as dha.Dak-ne, which are clearly distinguishable...
- Asmah Haji Omar, "The Malay Spelling Reform". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (2): 9–13. 1989. Archived from the original on 2010-07-06.
- Breza, Edward; Treder, Jerzy (1981). Gramatyka kaszubska. Gdańsk: Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie. p. 16. ISBN 83-00-00102-6.