LINGUIST List 8.44

Fri Jan 17 1997

Sum: Two variants of schwa

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Gabriele Azzaro, Sum: Two variants of schwa.

Message 1: Sum: Two variants of schwa.

Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997 20:17:13 +0100
From: Gabriele Azzaro <>
Subject: Sum: Two variants of schwa.

Dear Linguists,

on Thu Dec 19 1996 I posted a query in vol. # 7.1795 of LINGUIST,
concerning two issues: (a) neutral and high schwa realisation; (b)
vowel phoneme in -hood . As far as (a) is concerned, I take the two
"variants" of schwa in question to be: (i) normal schwa; (ii) "barred
i". I proposed two lists of words asking for native speakers'

I wish to thank all respondents for their precious help. Here is a sum
of the answers.

20 linguists replied, most agreeing with my transcriptions in the
first list but none agreeing with the second one. The vowel in "-hood"
in the second list is inequivocally /U/ (high back lax vowel, as in RP
English "put"). I will therefore report in more detail only the
reactions to the first list.

In the phonetic transcriptions of this list there occurred three major
oversights on my part, unfortunately (as some have noted). They were:
cylinder is [sIli-nd6] not [sIli-der]; eminence is [emi-n6s] not
[emi-nes]; participal is participle [pa:tIsi-p6l]. I must apologize.

Answers (in order of reception):

>>> Max Wheeler <> largely agrees on my
transcriptions but in his opinion [i-] and [I] are, intuitively, of
the same quality. He wouldn't have [&ngl6si-z6m] but [&ngli-si-z6m].
>>> A.F. GUPTA <engafgARTS-01.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK> agrees except for
eminence [emi-n6s] not [emi-nes]; inquisitive [InquIz6tiv] not
[InquIzi-tiv]; anglicism [&ngli-si-z6m] not [&ngl6si-z6m].
>>> Mimi Lipson <> proposes an interesting
idea: her feeling about the height of an unstressed vowel is that it
may interact with the syllabic status of a following (syllabic)
consonant. For instace in the word "kitten" the speaker, who hasn't
got syllabic [n], will insert a schwa, and this will tend to be high,
maybe higher than barred i . Non syllabic [l] produces a particulary
low unstressed vowel. In her judgements she's not sure about

abdominal	[&bdQmi-n6l]
determinant	[dIt3:min6nt]
economical	[ek6nQmi-k6l]
emigrant	[emi-gr6nt]
palmistry	[pa:mi-stri]

she has [6] instead of [i-] in the following words

cylinder	[sIli-nder] 
geophysical	[dZi:QfIzi-c6l]
immigrant	[Imi-gr6nt]
philippine	[fIli-pin]

Badminton is ok as [b&dmi-nt6n] but not with [n]; she has syllabic [n]
in nightingale and syllabic [m] in -ism. In the words ending in -ism
she has the secondary stress falling on the suffix thus pronuncing is
a full /I/.
>>> John Lee <> says that in all cases his [i-] is
very close to [I] and he tends to have for instance [sIlInd6] with two
full /I/s. 
>>> Charles Scott <> generally agrees on my
transcriptions. He agrees that there is a phonetic difference between
these two reduced vowels of English and that one is higher than the
other. But in some instance he would prefer a syllabic nasal. (In his
opinion nasals are syllabic following omorganic obstruents). He has
been wondering whether the difference between these two reduced vowels
can be stated in terms of phonetic conditioning; perhaps we could see
barred i in the environment of [+high] consonants, for instance
palatal and velars; but it does not always seem to be the case.
>>> Larry Mitchell <> says the only case he would
differ from the list would be "economical" where he'd prefer normal
>>> Mark Mendel <> suggested submitting the question
to ADS-L, the discussion list of American Dialect Society (which I
might well do with a revised list)
>>> Peter Daniels <> agrees that
there's a difference between barred i and schwa; he is confident
they're different phonemes with dozens of minimal pairs in Gen Am. The
picture might differ in RP.
>>> N.M.Taylor <> agrees with me exept for [&ngli-
si-z6m] [i:gg6ti-z6m] [kQnsu:m6ri-zm] where [i-] is a little too
stressed to be a schwa. The [i-] in [n&S6n6li-z6m] is quite close to
"barred i".
>>> Richard Coates <> agrees with the majority
of the pronunciations, exept that he uses /I/ instead of /i-/. He has
[&ngli-si-z6] not [&ngl6si-z6m].
>>> Jason Pontius <> agrees exept for: 
emigrant; eminence; participle; philippine; where he has normal
schwa. In nightingale he has syllabic [n]. In all -ism words he has a
full /i/.
>>> Christopher Upward <> agrees with me exept

[sili-nder]		[sIli-d6]
[ek6nQmi-c6l]		[i:k6nQmi-k6l]
[emi-nens]		[emi-n6ns]
[InquIzi-tIv]		[InkwIzi-tIv]
[pa:mi-stri]		[pa:mi-strI]
[pa:tIsi-pQl]		[pa:tIsi-p6l]
[&ngl6si-z6m]		[&Ngli-si-z6m]
[i:g6ti-z6m]		[eg6ti-z6m]
[kQnsu:m6ri-z6m]	[kQnsju:m6ri-z6m]
[n&S6n6li-z6m]	 [n&Sn6li-z6]

>>> Jakob Dampsey <> suggests that I should use
computeris analysis in order to obtain a precise answer to my
question. He pronounces "badminton" with a secondary not reduced
stress on the second syllable and for the word "anglicism" his
American Webster's has [6] for the first i but his Chamber's has
[i-]. In his opinion [i-] and [I] sound quite omophonous and he
wonders whether it is possible to elicit such variation in the schwa
from anyone who does not already know the spelling for all the words
they are asked. [NB. Sorry Jakob for not managing a personal message
of thanks. It keeps getting bounced from your server... Erika].
>>> Crookston Ian <> thinks [i-] and [I] are
allophones an asks what are my minimal pairs for [i-] and [I]. [NB. I
didn't look for minimal pairs for [i-] and [I] because I considered
"barred i" as a [+ high] variant of schwa. I choose words having a
full i (usually pronunced [I]) because the higher realization of [i-]
sounds very close to [I] and it is hard for me to decide wether it is
[i-] or [I]. Erika Torri].
>>> <> After stating that it might be better not to
speak about normality" or "standards" because of the great number of
dialects and individual variations, he only agrees with: [6mei-k6];
[pa:mi-stri]; [fili-pin]; [inquizi-tIv]; his revised tanscriptions are
(in curly brackets):
abdominal [&bdQmi-n6l] {/&bda'mn.l./}
abstinence [&bsti-n6ns] {/&'bstn.n.s/}
badminton [b&dmi-nt6n] {/b&'dmIn?n./}
cylinder [sIli-nder] {/sI'ln.dr./}
counterirritant [kaunt6rIri-t6nt] {/kauntr.I'ri-tn.t/}
determinant [dIt3:mi-n6nt] {/di-tr'.mn.n.t/}
economical [ek6nQmi-k6l] {/ek6na'mi-kl./}
electrical [Ilektri-k6l] {/i-le'ktri-kl./}
emigrant [emi-gr6nt] {/..grn.t/}
immigrant [Imi-gr6nt] {ditto}
eminence [emi-nens] {/..nn.s/}
geophysical [dZi:QfIzi-c6l] {/..kl./}
imminent [Imi-n6nt] {/..nn.t/}
intoxicant [intQksi-k6nt] {/}
incriminate [InkrImi-neIt] {}
nightingale [naIti-ngeIl] {glottal stop + syllabic eng}
Anglicism [&ngl6si-z6m] {/..sIzm./}
egotism [i:g6ti-z6m] {/i':gi-tIzm./}
consumerism [kQnsu:m6ri-z6m] {/}
nationalism [n&S6n6li-z6m] {/..Sn.l.Izm./}
participal {participle?} [pa:tIsi-pQl] {I don't recognize this}
-ism words have full I 

>>> Carl Mills <> He thinks there's a considerable
variation between the height of schwa and "barred i". He also notes
that with following alveolar and alveopalatal fricatives there's some
variation on the front to back dimention of these vowels.
>>> Scott Brian <> He has [I] for my [i-] in
words such as electrical and economical; in abdominal he has syllabic
[l]; other revisions are [naI?ngeIl]; [pQ:mi-stri]; [&nglIsIzm.];
>>> Ian Haines <> agrees without exception.
>>> Vic <> Asks for more details. Will get in
>>> <> is not sure about the following: Anglicism
[&ngl6si-z6m]; egotism [i:g6ti-z6m]; consumerism [kQnsu:m6ri-z6m];
nationalism [n&S6n6li-z6m]. Here -ism has /I/ rather than
/i-/. (Should it be not [Izm] but [Iz6m], if there is a distinct
schwa, it's very short.)

Thanks again to all the respondents. The picture is clearer to me now,
and it seems to be a fact that, with almost no exception, the
distinction [6]/[i-] is clearly operative at the phonetic level at

Erika Torri
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