LINGUIST List 6.672

Sat 13 May 1995

Sum: Schwa & hesitation vowels

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  1. Petur Knutsson, Sum: schwa & hesitation vowels

Message 1: Sum: schwa & hesitation vowels

Date: Wed, 10 May 1995 14:52:38 Sum: schwa & hesitation vowels
From: Petur Knutsson <>
Subject: Sum: schwa & hesitation vowels

On Fri 31 Mar 1995 (LINGUIST List: Vol-6-480) I posted a query
on orthographical representations of stressed schwa in English
and on hesitation vowels in languages generally. The connection
between these two questions is tenuous, perhaps simply
that that they came up together in the course of a class, and I
should really have separated them before posting them; also, I
should obviously have worded them better. I'll rephrase them
here, hopefully more clearly, and summarise the replies I

First, thanks to the following:

Wenchao Li (
Caoimhin P. ODonnaile (
Tim Pulju (
Steven Schaufele (
John Cowan (
Claude Boisson (
Steven Blackwelder (
Julie Vonwiller (
Steven Schaufele (
Achim Stenzel (
Don Churma (


In view of the notorious fact that English orthography has no
unambiguous method of transcribing schwa, its most common
phonetic segment (by a wide margin), I asked for examples of how
orthographical representations of schwa in Standard English
differ in rhotic- and non-rhotic areas. The examples I gave were
the hesitation-particles (spelt _er_, _erm_ in British English
and _uh_, _uhm_, and the representations of weak _you_ as
British _yer_ vs. American _yuh/ya_. For clarity, consider only
the pair _er/uh_. I assume that these are different
representations of the same word, pronounced more or less the
same (a schwa of varying length) in both varieties, but
necessarily spelt differently because of different relationships
between the (same) spelling and (differing) phonologies of the
two varieties. The result is that Br/Am readers misread each
other's hesitation particles:
-- most British readers make a clear distinction between the
CUT-vowel and schwa, and since they don't use the CUT-vowel in
the hesitation particle, they misread the spelling _uh_ as
a sort of grunt;
-- most American readers are rhotic, so that _er_ doesn't
register to them as a simple schwa either.
Thus American readers tend to think the British hesitate with a
burr, which they don't; and British readers tend to think
Americans hesitate like gorillas, which they don't (mostly).

For the record, the only further example of such spelling that I
received was Julie Vonwiller's Australian 'um', of which more

I then went on to ask for examples of LITERARY representations
of explicit stressed schwa. By this I meant examples of
metalanguage where people are _citing_ scwha; an imaginary
example might be a discussion on whether the-with-schwa or the-
with-/i:/ were correct in a given phrase. The example I gave,
and the only one I knew, was the quote from Winnie-the-Pooh
(more below).
In some ways I also drew a blank here, since nobody had any new
examples for me; but I got a weird and wonderful range of
comments on Winnie-the-Pooh which I think it's worth summarising
here, since they say something about how Brits/Americans (and
others) read and misread each other's canonical texts.
Here's the Pooh quote again. Christopher Robin has been asked
whether 'Winnie' isn't really a girl's name. He replies that the
bear's name isn't Winnie:
 'He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what _ther_ means?'
 'Ah, yes, now I do,' I explained quickly; and I hope you
 do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to
My contention is that a speaker of C.R.'s dialect
would not misunderstand this point. C.R.'s answer can be
paraphrased: 'Don't you understand the implications of the
definite article /dh/ here? It confers all the obvious
masculinity of the name Pooh onto the whole NP.' But in order to
bring this point over Milne is up against an orthographical
constraint: if he italicises _the_ it will be read with the
strong vowel /i:/, the Southern British citation form of the
article, which is also the stressed form of the
article carrying the further meaning 'the one and only, the
great', which is not C.R.'s meaning. (NB Steven Schaufele
pointed out that this usage is impossible in his English).
British orthography has only one apparatus for coding stressed
schwa, involving the letter 'r', as in prefer, bird, turn, etc.
American English can use 'u' followed by the 'open syllable'
symbol 'h', since American CUT and schwa are often close or
fully merged. Thus an American *translation* of C.R.'s answer
would be:
'He's Winnie-thuh-Pooh. Don't you know what _thuh_ means?'

Several American responses to my query showed that this point
doesn't always come over to a rhotic reader, even if he is a
linguist. John Cowan's response here summed it up best:
)And to think that for thirty years, winding up with
)reading WtP to my daughter a few months ago, I have
)interpreted this in my native dialect as /wIniDRpu/ (D =
)edh, R = vocalic American r) and assumed that it was a
)typical example of a child not knowing how to account for
)something and inventing a specious explanation involving a
)made-up word. Enlightenment at last!

A couple of interesting theories were mooted in the responses.
Achim Stenzel suggested:
)By using the form *ther*, Christopher Robin (i.e. Milne)
)alludes to the German article *der* which is masculine,
)whereas the conventionally stressed form *thee* would
)inappropriately allude to the feminine form of the German
This suggestion has far-reaching political and nationalistic
implications, given the date of the first edition (1926), and I
have pondered it deeply. Tim Pulju had another suggestion
)the translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin, namely
)Winnie Ille Pooh. I've noticed that that opening exchange
)about Pooh's gender makes a lot more sense in
Latin. When C.R. asks, in English, "Don't you know what
)`ther' means?", the implication is bizarre, as if 'ther'
)means 'male' in English. Of course, we are expected to
)chalk it up as just another cute thing that
)kids say.
)In Latin, however, when Christophorus Robinus asks,
)"Nescis, quod significet 'ille'?", the question makes
)perfect sense, especially in a late Vulgar
)Latin context, when 'ille' was largely done shifting from
)"that (masc. sg." to "he". Which leads to my conclusion
)that the work was actually written in Latin, and that the
)English version has a somewhat infelicitous translation of
)the exchange in question.
German, Latin ... any further suggestions?


My second query on hesitation vowels in other languages evoked
more straightforward replies. Don Churma and Claude Boisson
cottoned on to my underlying idea; I was interested in the
'most neutral' vowel in a language, with the idea that this
might have some bearing on the shape of the language's vowel-
system. Don referred me to
"The basis of articulation", Lawrence Schourup (1983), _Ohio
State U. Working Papers in Linguistics_ 25:1-13
and Claude suggested:
)On peut postuler que cela est lie a ce que l'on a appele la
)"base articulatoire" caracteristique de chaque langue (sur ce
)concept, voir Honikman 1964 ; Keltz 1971 ; Pike 1967)...
I still have to get these references from Claude sorted out.

Several people gave me information on hesitation WORDS as well
as vowels in various languages (John Cowan, Steven Blackwelder,
Caoimhin ODonnaile, Claude Boisson). I won't summarise that
information here (get in touch with me if you're interested),
but I'd like to enlarge on the orthographical form 'um' noted in
Australian Engl by Julie Vonwiller. This also exists in British
English. I have the feeling that this can also become a
lexicalised hesitation word, when it will assume (in Brit) the
CUT-vowel (different from Schwa); i.e. it becomes lexicalised
and assumes the referent 'I am hesitating', like 'ouch' and
'phew' (which were once non-verbals). This can be contrasted
with the DELEXICALIZED hesitation WORDS : well, sort of, kind of,
like, I mean (Icelandic sko, sem sagt - you think of them in
your own language), which have lost their meaning and are mostly
used unconsciously.

Anyway, here's the summary of hesitation-vowels:

Language hesitation vowel source
Mandarin scwha Wenchao Li
certain Wu dialects [e] Wenchao Li
Min dialects low central [a] Wenchao Li
French mid high front rounded Marc Picard
Canadian French schwa Marc Picard
Polish ("when speaking English")
 nasalized prepalatalized ash Tim Puljin
Australian English often long [a:] Julie Vonwiller
Argentinian Spanish lax high central Don Churma
Hausa prolongation of
 preceding vowel Don Churma
to which I'll add:
Scots [e:]
Icelandic [e] and [e:] half closed front
 occ. rising to [I:] (some women speakers)

Not much of a list; but a lot of what I was looking for
came in an interesting article sent me by Claude Boisson.
I won't try to summarize his article here, but Claude will
doubtless email it to anyone interested.

Thanks everyone!

Petur Knutsson telephone: (+354) 569 4456
Heimspekideild/Faculty of Arts fax: (+354) 569 4410
University of Iceland, Rekjavik email:
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