LINGUIST List 14.3575

Tue Dec 23 2003

Sum: Neutral Vowels Across Langs Part 2

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


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

Message 1: Neutral vowels across languages, Part II

Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2003 21:10:59 -0500 (EST)
From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira <>
Subject: Neutral vowels across languages, Part II

[continuation of summary of replies to query (Linguist 14.3204)]

= The label 'schwa' = 

There was general consensus over the point made in my posting that
there is ambiguity in the use of the term 'schwa'. This is compounded
by the use of [] / inverted [e] symbols as cover symbols for both
functional and articulatory representations of neutral vowels across

Uri Tadmor provided a brief history of the term 'schwa', or 'shwa',
that may explain this ambiguity. The concept originates from
traditional Hebrew grammar, to denote a lack of a vowel between two
consonants. Under certain conditions, there was phonetically zero
vowel, but under certain other conditions, a short epenthetical vowel
was inserted. The concept was adopted by European grammarians and
linguists, who used it to refer to the epenthetical vowel
itself. Because in European languages the epenthetical vowel is often
the mid-central vowel, it later came to be used as a phonetic term for
this vowel. In fact, in Biblical Hebrew the schwa, when realized as a
vowel, was probably a low central vowel.

Joaquim Brandao de Carvalho pointed out a terminological distinction
that was unknown to me, between ''bare schwas'', corresponding to a
mid central articulation like the one of the English neutral vowel,
and ''dressed-up schwas'', with any other vowel colouring. I offer
these English labels as free translations of two French terms, whose
source I'm still trying to locate.

= Schwa phonology = 

Many of the respondents raised several intriguing analytical issues,
some of them indirectly related but nevertheless related to my
query. Since the matter of schwa ambiguity doesn't seem to boil down
to a simple terminological glitch, I collate and rephrase a few here,
with my own comments added (MCF).

Toby Paff wondered whether there may be a parallel between uses of
neutral vowels in intonation languages and uses of 'neutral' tones in
tone languages that have them. He also asked the following: French,
like most Romance languages, does not distinguish between 'tense' and
'lax' vowels. If its neutral vowel, the so-called ''e muet'', is a
'lax' vowel, it is the only one. If it is tense, why, among other
things, is it never accented when it is final as are all other vowels
in French, and why does it drop, eg. 'petit' in isolation but 'le
ptit' in normal speech? MCF: since this vowel does occur in final
position (the 'e' may not be so 'muet' after all) the issue stands of
whether French is indeed an oxyton language, and ''syllable-timed''.

Uri Tadmor noted that the erroneous association of the name 'schwa'
with a mid central vowel is unfortunate on several grounds. It is
historically incorrect (of course words change meanings; but it would
make for better science if technical terms didn't). It blurs the
distinction between phonetics and phonology. 'Schwa', used in its
phonological sense, can be represented by vowels which vary greatly
phonetically. MCF: I think the matter is also one of taking the label
for the thing, 'the thing' being whatever features of whatever
language(s) analysts happen to be familiar with.

Finally, from several of the respondents' comments, two other
questions arose for me: is there theoretical room for a structural
'neutral vowel'? If so, what would the apparently oxymoronic
formulation ''neutral phoneme'' apply to? But that's another story

Many thanks again to all respondents, for the trouble you took in
replying and for making me think quite a lot!

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