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Summary Details

Query:   Neutral vowels across languages
Author:  Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonetics

Summary:   Dear all,

Below is a summary of the query that I posted to the Linguist about one month ago,
Somewhat surprisingly, not least in view of a summary on a related matter posted only a few days later at, only five people responded.
Nevertheless, their replies and ensuing 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 Brand?o de Carvalho
Georgios Tserdanelis
Toby Paff
James L Fidelholtz
Uri Tadmor

A summary of the returns follows. The original posting is copied at the end. 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
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 laryngeals
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 Brand?o de Carvalho pointed out that 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 added that 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 added that the Dutch vowel is used to break up consonant clusters, and that it may have slight rounding.

James L Fidelholtz added that 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.

= 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 languages.

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 Brand?o 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 Joaquim Brand?o de Carvalho's, Toby Paff's and Uri Tadmor's 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 altogether.

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


Original posting:

Message 1: Neutral vowels across languages
Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2003 19:55:40 -0500 (EST)
From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Subject: Neutral vowels across languages

Dear all,

In some languages, there is one same 'neutral' vowel that is used in a number of ways, like:
-it occurs in unstressed syllables only, and can also be the vowel with which other vowels alternate in stress shifts due eg to affixation
-it is an epenthetic vowel, eg to break consonant clusters
-it occurs in filled pauses.
In English and in Portuguese, there is one neutral vowel that fulfils all three criteria, though the quality of the vowel is different in each of these languages.

Would you be able to give me, or tell me where to find, information on:

1.whether other languages have one, or more than one, neutral vowel;
2.whether neutral vowels of other languages fulfil these 3 criteria (only 1, or 2? other criteria? which vowel is used for what?);
3.the phonetic quality of this vowel /these vowels.

**Please note that I'm not necessarily looking for ''schwa-like'' vowels. The neutral vowel of English is usually called ''schwa'', though the use of this term for other languages is ambiguous, as far as I understand. It can mean 'neutral' vowel, which is a functional label, or it can mean a 'lax unrounded mid central' quality, which is an articulatory label. Both meanings are true of the English neutral vowel, but not of the Portuguese one. I also wonder whether I should be asking for sonorants, instead of vowels. Some varieties of Swedish use, I believe, [n] for filled pauses.**

Many thanks for your help! I look forward to your replies and I will of course post back any returns.



LL Issue: 14.3575
Date Posted: 20-Dec-2003
Original Query: Read original query


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