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Summary Details

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

Summary:   [continuation of summary of replies to query posted at

= 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 several of the respondents' 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!


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


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