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Subject: History of Schwa in English
Question:
Do you have any information about the origin of schwa? It is not mentioned in a 1936 edition of the Webster dictionary. I am curious as to when it was incorporated into the phonetic system. This information will be shared with my fourth grade class, so an explanation with simple
vocabulary would be appreciated.

Thank You.
Reply:
Unfortunately for Americans, Webster's dictionaries always use (Noah) Webster's unscientific pronunciation guides, so that they don't really represent English sounds very well. He invented his system before the development of scientific phonetics, and based it on the extremely poor fit of English spelling to actual English pronunciation. It wasn't bad for 1800, but it's pretty archaic today.

So, in answer to your question, the sound shwa has always been a part of modern English. It represents what happens to unstressed ("unaccented") vowels, so it's by far the most common vowel in English, since most syllables in words aren't stressed. The symbol shwa (/ə/), on the other hand, has never been a part of the way English pronunciation is presented in our educational system. It's used everywhere else in the world but America, just like the metric system, but American dictionaries apparently believe Americans are too ignorant about language to deal with the facts of pronunciation.

To see how the real system works, check out http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/goodnightmoon.pdf

-John Lawler - http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/aue 
"Academic integrity still plagues campus"
Headline, University of Michigan Daily 11/12/02

Reply From: John M. Lawler     click here to access email
Date: Jan-29-2007
Other Replies:
  1. Re: History of Schwa in English   Herbert Frederic Stahlke    (Jan-29-2007)
  2. Re: History of Schwa in English   Anthea Fraser Gupta    (Jan-29-2007)
  3. Re: History of Schwa in English   James L Fidelholtz    (Jan-29-2007)

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