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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.
OED's first citation for the word 'schwa' in English is from 1895. The IPA symbol for it (ə) was in the original IPA alphabet (from 1886).

Many of the early phoneticians of English before the IPA was developed recognised the sound [ə], which they tended to describe as an 'uncertain' vowel. The concept was around even though the word had not yet been borrowed from Hebrew, and the symbol not yet devised.

I think something interesting to introduce your students to is the concept of stress and reduction. Tell them English speakers make a bigdifference between stressed and unstressed syllables and tend to use [ə] in a lot of unstressed syllables. You could explore words that are hard to spell as a result of this (attendance, correspondence, distant, serpent, etc.).


Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta     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   Herbert Frederic Stahlke    (Jan-29-2007)
  3. Re: History of Schwa in English   James L Fidelholtz    (Jan-29-2007)

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