LINGUIST List 14.3574

Tue Dec 23 2003

Sum: Neutral Vowels Across Langs

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Neutral vowels across languages, Part I

Message 1: Neutral vowels across languages, Part I

Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2003 21:07:28 -0500 (EST)
From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira <>
Subject: Neutral vowels across languages, Part I

Dear all,

Below is a summary of the responses to my posting about one month ago
(Linguist 14.3204). Somewhat surprisingly, not least in view of a
summary on a related matter posted only a few days later (Linguist
14.3260), only six people responded. Nevertheless, their replies and
discussion gave me much food for thought and, promisingly, raised even
more questions than the ones that first prompted my posting. My very
sincere thanks go to, in order of appearance:

Joaquim Brandao de Carvalho
Georgios Tserdanelis
Toby Paff
James L Fidelholtz
Uri Tadmor
Eduardo Rivail Ribeiro

A summary of the returns follows. Please feel free to contact me
directly for more details -- or more discussion.

= Neutral vowel quality =
Dutch (some dialects) - unrounded mid central 
English - unrounded mid central, but often realised as a high central
vowel (IPA 'barred [i]'), as pointed out in SPE
French (Parisian) - rounded mid front
modern Greek - tense [e]
modern Hebrew - [e] in epenthesis and filled pauses
Japanese - unrounded high back
Karaj√° (an indigenous language spoken in Central Brazil) - lax
unrounded mid central
Lushootseed (formerly Skagit, a Salish language from Washington State)
- the neutral vowel seems to have the quality of English schwa, and
predictable patterning as such, although it turns up as [i] before
Makassarese - [o] 
Micmac (Mi'kmaq) - unrounded mid central 
Polish - there were two different views here. One, that the default
vowel is unrounded mid central. Another, that Polish has [e] for
epenthesis and [i] for other default uses
Portuguese (Brazilian) - [i] in epenthesis
Portuguese (European) - unrounded high mid-back in epenthesis and
stress-induced alternation, same quality or unrounded mid central in
filled pauses
Russian - unrounded high mid-back
Serbo-Croatian - [a]
Somali - copy of any lexical vowel quality in epenthesis
Spanish - [e]
Turkish - unrounded high back
Yawelmani - copy of lexical high vowel in epenthesis

Joaquim Brandao de Carvalho: epenthetic vowels may have many
different qualities across languages, viz. those that occur as copy of
a lexical vowel. Uri Tadmor echoed the point.

Georgios Tserdanelis: the modern Greek tense [e] is the epenthetic
vowel used to avoid word final consonants, especially [n]. It is also
used in filled pauses and in short questions equivalent to English
'huh?'. In Greek compounding, the linking vowel is always [o]. Both
vowels can occur in stressed and unstressed positions with some change
in duration though little change in quality (they get devoiced between
voiceless consonants sometimes too).

Toby Paff: the Dutch vowel is used to break up consonant clusters, and
it may have slight rounding.

James L Fidelholtz: in Mi'kmaq, hesitation seems to be marked by [e],
besides laryngeal consonants. The connecting morpheme has the form
[i]. English may also have default uses of [i], eg in
diminutives. Other data showed neutral use of the vowel qualities []
and [i] in the same language. Filled pauses can take on virtually any
vowel quality in English, though some vowels may sound more natural
than others. The same is true of the vowels in the positive 'uh-huh'
and the negative 'uh-uh'. James L Fidelholtz also recommended a book
by Szpyra, Jolanta (1995), _Three Tiers in Polish and English
Phonology_, Lublin, Poland, that addresses issues related to default
vowels in both languages.

Eduardo Rivail Ribeiro: the neutral vowel of Karaj√° occurs in
unstressed syllables and is the epenthetic vowel breaking up consonant
clusters in loanwords, for example. Filled pauses are marked by a
specific morpheme. [contd.]

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