LINGUIST List 11.553

Sun Mar 12 2000

Disc: Underlying Schwa?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1.>, different kinds of schwa ?

Message 1: different kinds of schwa ?

Date: Sun, 12 Mar 2000 19:13:52 +0800
From:> <>
Subject: different kinds of schwa ?

a) Two different kinds of schwa ?

In my very native style of American English I fail to find this
division into two different kinds of unstressed vowels Jorge
mentions. For example, in "pallet" and "ballot" I pronounce everything
the same except for the initial consonant (I would transcribe as /
pal't, bal't /. Is it a mere coincidence that, as far as I know,
every case of this supposed high-front unstressed vowel corresponds to
a syllable where the vowel is SPELLED with " i " or " e " ? In other
words, the existence of these two kinds of unstressed vowels may be no
more than an affectation by the highly-literate speakers who speak and
teach it. I feel that the major task of phonology, dealing with a
"low-level" of the speech phenomenon, is concerned with unconscious
behavior, not highly self-monitored, self-reported behavior. ("OK,
try saying 'rabbit' REAL SLOW now!")

In any case, since the minimal pair, by which we define
vowel-phonemes, is a matter of stressed syllables, is there any great
significance is this slight, unstressed variation which some speakers
claim to have? Would it even ever disqualify someone from the title of
"native speaker"? Just as a matter of curiosity I would be interested
to hear if this sort of distinction in unstressed vowels has been
measured experimentally (I mean with acoustic equipment) in large
samples of unmonitored speech (preferably U.S. English). As far as I
know, it's simply what the dictionaries tell us.

b) underlying schwa?

As for "calculate" etc. I would personally analyse as / kalkylet /
i.e. a single vowel in the second syllable. It's true that it's mainly
due to tradition that we consider the vowel to be / y / , the same as
in "ny jork" (pron. varies acc. to dialect), but, if we do consider it
to be a single vowel (and the spelling here is now on my side!), then
since no other English vowel has a palatal glide as part of its first
component, it makes sense to regard it as / y /. A lot of these
matters are merely tradition and convenience, e.g. the initial vowel
in "assume". I transcribe more "traditionally" as / asym / and more
"realistically" as / 'sym /. Since I teach English to non-native
(Chinese) speakers who habitually speak English as if they were
reading it, overly-stressing the unstressed vowels, I feel it's best
to represent the "schwa" as a non-schwa, i.e. as a small,
characterless tick (apostrophe or whatever) to emphasize its
fundamental difference from all other vowels. In a certain sense it
isn't really a "vowel" at all, thus trying to establish where it may
be an "underlying segment" may be a waste of time. This unstressed
sound is characterised by being "uncharacterised", lacking any
distinctive features that would pull it to a corner the vowel-chart,
and also lacking any stress that might more clearly differentiate it
from other vowels. To treat it as just another vowel, with underlying
froms to be searched for, seems misguided to me. Of course, in sets
like "atom-atomic, mystery-mysterious, history-historian" it makes our
phonology seem like a very neat, clever science when we can explain
the variations and the relationship between stressed and unstressed
sounds; when we can't, many people's first instinct is to simply look
at the written form and quickly find their "answer". This lacking,
there begins talk about "underlying schwa", but is it really because
the phonological categories are different in these latter cases, or is
it simply because we lack the information --- no historical clues, no
related written forms, no foreign cognates --- needed to set up
relationships such as "substans (sUbstns) - substanSl (s'bstanSl) ", ?
Words like "deltaic","Venusian" seem totally an exercise in written
symbols and their conventional interpretation---certainly worthy of a
side-line investigation, but not likely to provide much of interest to
general phonological theory.

- -Jakob Dempsey
 Yuan-ze University, Taiwan
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