Monday 25 February 2013

The alternating schwa

The universe seen through a CV telescope
The schwa is an interesting vowel resting in the centre of the vowel universe. It's also a lightweight vowel - hardly ever (!) stressed. Why the exclamation mark? Look at this entry in LPD3:

A more detailed description of words containing stressed schwa can be found in this blog post by Jack Windsor Lewis.

The schwa is often called a neutral vowel because with this vowel "the vocal tract is in its neutral configuration" (Laver 1994:2801). Neutrality also indicates that the schwa levels out vowel differences or, to put it differently, the schwa does not serve to distinguish word meanings in the same way as other vowels do. Look at this minimal set:
gist - jest - joist - joust - deuced - just
/dʒɪst/ - /dʒest/ - /dʒɔɪst/ - /dʒaʊst/ - /dʒuːst/ - /dʒʌst/
When I replace one of the vowels with any of the others I get a different word with a different meaning. Not so when I replace /ʌ/ with /ə/ in just.
credit: Nicolas Munoz

Or take this sentence:
/ðə kwək brən fəks dʒəmps əvə ðə ləzə dəɡ/
It isn't too difficult to understand, is it?

Some of you may be familiar with the song German children sometimes sing:

Drü Chünüsün müt düm Küntrübüss
dü süssün üf dü Strüßü ünd ürzühltün süch wüs,

(Three Chinese with a double bass
sat in the street and talked to each other,

Then they substitute <ü> for any other German vowel until they get tired of the game.

 In English polysyllabic words many (but not all) unstressed syllables contain schwa vowels:
  • /prɪn(t)səp(ə)l/ (but also /prɪn(t)sɪp(ə)l/)
  • /ɪnhɒspɪtəb(ə)l/
  • /fəntæstɪk/ (but also /fæntæstɪk/)
With morphologically related words one has to learn which syllables contain the schwa vowel, e.g.
anatomy - anatomical
audiology - audiological
biology - biological
botany - botanical
diachrony - diachronic
etymology - etymological
phrenology - phrenological
With a few words there's even an alternative pronunciation with a schwa shift. Probably the most well-known word is /kən'trɒvəsi/ or /'kɒntrəvɜːsi/ or even /'kɒntrəvəsi/. Others are garage, inventory and harass. Can you find more words with at least two accepted alternative pronunciations illustrating schwa shift?



Ed Kerala /ˈkerələ/

Line 3 Col 1 Line 3 Col 2 Line 3 Col 3 Line 3 Col 4

1Laver, J. (1994), Principles of phonetics, CUP


  1. There is the Indian state of Kerala, which I have visited. I pronounce this as /'kerələ/ and all the Keralites that I've met say it this way. However, there is an alternative form /kə'rɑ:lə/.

    I'm surprised by the entry for "just" in LPD. Are there really so many people who say /dʒest/? In addition, I'm curious which non-RP accent says /dʒɪst/ as a weak form.

  2. I would tend to say /dʒəst/ (with the schwa) when the word serves as a modifier (e.g. "I was just talking to him") and /dʒʌst/ for the adjective meaning "fair". Don't think I've ever heard /dʒɪst/, although I could imagine it in the mouth of an American Southerner.

    I've never heard /kə'rɑ:lə/: if I were to hear it, I would assume it was a valiant attempt at a spelling pronunciation by someone who'd never heard the word spoken. (Of course, such pronunciations can eventually take on a life of their own, which I suppose could have happened in this case).

    1. vp: LPD3 corroborates your distinction regarding just. The only pronunciation offered for just as an adjective is /dʒʌst/.
      /dʒɪst/ is marked with § signalling a pronunciation "widespread in England among educated speakers, but which [is] nevertheless judged to fall outside RP" (LPD3, p. xix)

    2. I don't recall hearing /dʒɪst/ for "just". I've looked it up in England Dialect Grammar and in the dictionary/grammar for the Survey of English Dialects, and have not found it in either.

      However, the latter book did give an incidence of /dʒest/. It's given on page 249 in an Essex utterance of "looks just like". I think that this is a predominantly south-eastern form.