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Ask a linguist - Message details

Subject: History of Schwa in English
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.
The name of the vowel and the sound itself are separate matters. The first printed use of the word "schwa" as a name for the vowel sound [ə], according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 1885. Webster's, of course, wouldn't have listed it until its usage became common enough to be worth listing. The vowel sound itself, though, goes back to Old English, where an (<> to distinguish letters from sounds) would be pronounced as schwa if it were unstressed and not initial in the word. Thus the second in "first" would have been a schwa, and the final in "arrival" would have been schwa. In "ale" the first would have been [e], like the first part of the vowel sound in "bait", but the second would have been schwa.

In Middle English (1100-1500), as stress became more strongly marked, more unstressed vowels reduced to schwa. This trend has continued into Modern English where even more unstressed syllables have schwa, so, for example, has either schwa or [i] in the first syllable and [i] in the second, but has [ɛ] in the first syllable and schwa in the second.

By the way, pronouncing with an [i] in the first syllable instead of schwa is an instance of what is called "spelling pronunciation", that is, pronouncing a word in a particular way because the spelling seems to demand it. A common example of spelling pronunciation is pronouncing the in or . Those instances of ceased to be pronounced a couple of hundred years ago and then started coming back as literacy spread in the 19th c. because the spelling hadn't changed when the [l] was dropped.

I hope this is useful.

Reply From: Herbert Frederic Stahlke     click here to access email
Date: Jan-29-2007
Other Replies:
  1. Re: History of Schwa in English   John M. Lawler    (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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