LINGUIST List 11.542

Sat Mar 11 2000

Disc: Underlying Schwa?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Mark_Mandel, underlying schwa
  2. Douglas G. Wilson, Re: 11.523, Disc: Underlying Shwa?
  3. Laurence Horn, Re: 11.511, Disc: Underlying Shwa?
  4. Jorge Guitart, Re: 11.499, Disc: New: Underlying Shwa?

Message 1: underlying schwa

Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2000 12:32:08 -0500
From: Mark_Mandel <>
Subject: underlying schwa

Larry <> writes:

Consider the word "calcule" (/kalkju:l/) which appears in the 2041 edition
of Webster's. We find the following entry: "1. a decision based on a
calculation (in the figurative sense), a consideration of various
possibilites; 2. a choice or decision, made against seemingly strong odds,
but turning out to be the correct one in hindsight".

When considering *possible* words in English we may be able to prove that
there can be no underlying schwa. Supporting evidence might be found in the
history buried in (ore revealed by) English spelling: every schwa is
represented by one of the 5 vowel symbols, and we will find cognates or
antecedents in other languages that have non-reduced vowels in the exact
same position where we find schwa in English.

 [Jorge Guitart had written:]
> What is the better candidate for the UR of X where X is the morpheme
> common to each alternant--shwa or something else?

Contrary to what I suggested in my first message, I would now suggest that
the one example (the "calcul-" words) may not be useful evidence to support
an underlying schwa because it is merely accidental that there is no word
(any longer, yet) from that group where a stressed /ju:/ sound occurs
between the second "c" and the "l".

In all this discussion I have seen little or no mention of the influence of
spelling. I had it ground into my head very early in my linguistic career that A
PHONEME IS NOT A LETTER and so on, in the effort of overcoming the layperson's
tendency to treat the written language as the true or underlying form, and I
suppose that many other linguists had the same experience. But I fear that this
early drill leads us to ignore the powerful effects of literacy, especially in
rare words that are encountered only by the highly literate and through the eye
rather than the ear. IIRC, SPE pretended that English-speakers somehow
develop a huge store of essentially diachronic knowledge, some of it based on
highly arcane lexa, without any influence from the written word.

Could it just possibly be the case that the so-called "underlying" stressed
/ju:/ in these groups of words, many of them freshly coined and never learned
aurally, is something that we learn and maintain in our knowledge of the
*written* language?!

 Mark A. Mandel : Senior Linguist and Manager of Acoustic Data : Dragon Systems, Inc.
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02460, USA :
 (speaking for myself)
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Message 2: Re: 11.523, Disc: Underlying Shwa?

Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2000 19:43:25 -0500
From: Douglas G. Wilson <>
Subject: Re: 11.523, Disc: Underlying Shwa?

> Date: Thu, 09 Mar 2000 16:45:27 +0900
> From: Yongsung Lee <>
> Subject: Re: 11.511, Disc: Underlying Shwa?
> We can also think of the phonological aspects of English to
> answer the question about underlying schwas. If the surface
> schwas alternate with other vowels on the surface, we surely
> posit a full vowel in the underlying representation and
> resort to vowel reduction to explain the schwas. But if
> there is no surface alternation as shown in the typical
> example of SPE, effVrt, amVzon and others, (cf. SPE, 37,
> footnote 27) we find no evidence of positing any full vowel
> in the underlying forms. The weak vowels in these cases can
> be viewed as underlying schwas. ...

I don't know what SPE is. But:

'Amazon' contrasts with 'amazia' [mej'zi], an uncommon medical term meaning 'lack
of breasts'.

'Effort' contrasts with the obsolete verb 'effort' and also with the rare verb
'efforce', both of which seem to have last-syllable stress with 'o' vowel.

[All of these words appear in the OED. (^_^)]

- Doug Wilson
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Message 3: Re: 11.511, Disc: Underlying Shwa?

Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2000 14:36:29 -0400
From: Laurence Horn <>
Subject: Re: 11.511, Disc: Underlying Shwa?

A minor correction to a previous post by Jim Fidelholtz, who evidently
didn't bring his full library with him to Mexico. He writes:

>Date: Wed, 8 Mar 2000 19:03:15 -0600 (CST)
>From: "James L. Fidelholtz" <>
>Subject: Re: 11.499, Disc: New: Underlying Shwa?
>...Note that, as per the
>arguments in my 1976 article, it does not matter here whether we are
>considering spoken or written language, since this would be precisely
>the frequency where they would generally agree...

>...By the way, see Fidelholtz 1976, pp. 200-213 in the CLS vol. 10, for a
>fairly thorough treatment of VR in English...

The paper of his to which Jim refers here was actually published in neither
CLS 10 nor 1976. Here's the actual reference:

Fidelholtz, James (1975) Word-Frequency and Vowel Reduction in English.
In CLS 11, 200-13.

I'm quite fond of this paper myself and would like to direct Listees
correctly to it.

(By the way, on the topic of alternating schwas, I actually heard a real
live reference to "acalculia" yesterday in a linguistics talk at Haskins
Labs--the disorder, not the lexical item.)

Larry Horn
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Message 4: Re: 11.499, Disc: New: Underlying Shwa?

Date: Sat, 11 Mar 2000 00:25:54 -0500 (EST)
From: Jorge Guitart <>
Subject: Re: 11.499, Disc: New: Underlying Shwa?

 Jeremy Whistle wrote 
> As a British English speaker I am hesitant about getting involved in
> a discussion on schwa in American English but the two languages
> are still similar enough for me to dare to intervene.
> No-one seems to have mentioned stress so far. In "cactus",
> "abacus", "syllabus","phosphorous" (N), and "opus" the schwa
> syllables are all unstressed. The invented word "cactusia" like the
> more or less real medical words ending in "'-ia" and "-ic" would in
> my view be stressed on the penultimate syllable as in "amnesia"
> and "ambrosia" (sorry but I couldn't think of any words ending in "-
> usia") which would prevent schwa-ing.

The matter that interests me is, how would you pronounce the second
vowel of cactusia? I suppose not like the last vowel of cactus. 
The motivation for making up 
cactusia,opusia, etc. was that someone said there were underlying shwas
in cactus,opus, etc. I (who did mention stress before) would say that the
shwa in cactus is predictable. Weakly stressed vowels are realized as
shwa (I am talking about the sound symbolized as an upside down e, not the
so-called stressed shwa symbolized as an upside down v) But the underlying
vowel in question, that is to say, the last vowel
of the morpheme cactus, which appears in both cactus and cactusia, should
in my view have the same distinctive features as the second vowel of
cactusia. Compare the second vowel of atom which is shwa in AmEngl, with
the second vowel of atomic, which is not shwa. Obviously, the underlying
vowel is not shwa but a vowel that has the same features as
the second vowel in atomic. That, if you believe, like me, that morphemes
have an invariable phonological shape and there are principles
(constraints, rules or what have you ) that determine their different
physical realizations. If you believe otherwise,that's fine, but then our
conversation on this topic isn't going to be long.

Thanks for your interest.

Jorge Guitart
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