Schwa
[ Issue 34 ]

Schwa intrigues Emily Bronto

Bikwil is proud to feature Schwa

Schwa

In Issue 34 Harlish Goop introduces us to a 700-year-old phenomenon of English pronunciation, officially known as schwa.
 

Spoken by more people on the planet than any other tongue except Chinese, English is often described as 'the international language', with those who require a second language invariably choosing (or being compelled) to learn it rather than any other.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like
— Harlish Goop

Copyright


Spoken by more people on the planet than any other tongue except Chinese, English is often described as “the international language”, with those who require a second language invariably choosing (or being compelled) to learn it rather than any other. There are cultural, industrial and political reasons for English language globalism which are obvious and unnecessary for me to enumerate here.

Instead, I ask you to spare a thought for what’s in store for all those millions who do take on English as their second language.

For anyone starting out to learn English in such circumstances there are without doubt mixed blessings in the offing. With effort, to be sure, its vocabulary can be memorised and its grammar — well the rules for that, such as there are, verge on the uncomplicated.

But its pronunciation?

The answer to that question is as straightforward as English pronunciation isn’t. Indeed, let the foreign student be warned at the outset: the waywardness of English pronunciation in relation to its spelling will in next to no time become unto you a thrice-accursed abomination.

As far back as Issue 6 (1998 March), in our first Where Three Ways Meet column, Bikwil was alluding to this contrariness. I quote from that column the example showing the nine ways “ough” can be pronounced:

A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough. After falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.

Another well-known instance of the difficulties the newcomer to English encounters is the “sh” sound, which is the reverse problem to the single-spelling/multiple-sound mysteries of “ough”.

According to Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, “sh” has fourteen different spellings, some of which occur in the words anxious, fission, fuchsia, nation and ocean.

Then there’s schwa.

Schwa?

Yes, well, I’m not surprised that the word is unfamiliar to you. Schwa (pronounced “shwah”) is a term drawn from Hebrew grammar (“sheva”) that was originally a sign written under a consonant to indicate the absence of a following vowel sound. Later it became used also to represent a neutral vowel, and that’s the function it has today in linguistics generally.

What’s a “neutral vowel”?

In English it’s the first vowel sound in the word along or the vowel sound that ends the word sofa. Often shown in simplified pronunciation guides as “uh”, it is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet by the symbol of an upside down “e” — [ə].

But take a look at this list put together by English Plus+, an American grammar tutoring firm I found on the Internet:

adept
synthesis
decimal
harmony
medium
syringe

Each of the underlined vowels is a schwa and has virtually the same pronunciation, but for the unwary newcomer to English the spelling gives little indication of the appalling truth.

Now I’m not claiming that English is the only language boasting a schwa. In point of fact, I’ve heard rumours that languages as dissimilar as Dutch, Danish, Russian, Hindi, Turkish and Berber have such a vowel. But I’ll bet that they treat it with care and cherish it quietly, in a reliable manner, and keep it in its place. French, German, Italian and Spanish do so: remember the “e mute” from high school French?

English, on the other hand, wants to swank about and paint the town red with it. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” is the motto by which English lives.

Does this triumphalist swagger represent slovenliness on the part of today’s English speakers?

Perhaps, but it would be a mistake is assume that the expansionism of the British Empire in the 19th century and the even more pervading 20th century clout of America were all it took for the power of schwa to have its lax way with the English language. Sure, they helped, but the widespread use of schwa in English isn’t some recent aberration of the modern world at all.

On the contrary, it is a very old feature of the language, dating back to about the beginning of the 14th century. By then English was already a spicy mix of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, and as well as a rapidly growing vocabulary several other crucial transformations were taking place.

One change was a tendency to reduce any short vowel in an unstressed syllable to a common indeterminate vowel. To wit, schwa. But English didn’t stop there. Oh no. Once its vowels had lost their individuality, it seemed no time before English wanted to drop the word inflections it had inherited from German and French. In fact, the prevalence of schwa is said by language historians to have directly contributed to this change.

Here are some examples of the very few word inflections which remain in modern English:

Nouns have separate endings in the possessive case ("'s" and "s'") and the plural number ("s")

Most verbs have suffixes indicating
third person singular ("-s")
past tense ("-ed") and
present participle ("-ing")

The most heavily inflected parts of speech are pronouns ("he", "him", "his").

Accompanying this movement to a relatively uninflected language was an inevitable reliance on word order and prepositions to show the relationship between the words in a sentence, instead of the positional flexibility that word endings had previously allowed. The dual characteristics of fixed word order/prepositions and hardly any word endings are the historical keys to modern English’s “easy grammar”.

Moreover, loss of inflection and word order flexibility has been compensated for in modern English by a elasticity in parts of speech usage. Thus nouns and verbs once distinguished by their inflections can be interchanged (e.g. run, place, gun, face), and all nouns may be used adjectivally.

But to come back to schwa . . .

What makes matters worse for our unsuspecting student is that some words can be pronounced with a schwa one minute and without it the next, i.e. with a “real” vowel. Typically this is accompanied by a change in the syllable from unaccented to accented. For instance,

record as a verb has a schwa in the first syllable, and the accent on the second, whereas

record as a noun has a short "e" [ε] in the accented first syllable

A similar case can be found in the different pronunciations of the word present, and no doubt you can think of other examples.

Although schwa is omnipresent in English, it is not without its opponents.

For example, novice public speakers are sometimes advised by diction consultants to give extra weight to unstressed syllables. This they would do with the first syllable of police, say, or that of tomato. Now and then I’ve heard this sort of thing on the radio, and if the announcer isn’t careful it starts to sound affected.

Despite the best efforts of elocutionists, however, schwa can’t stay quiet for long, and two ways English takes advantage of it in humorous vein are to found in puns and doggerel rhymes.

Let me remind you of a couple of classic puns from our own Quintessential Quirky Quotes pages where schwa rears its democratic little head with no trace of qualm or misgiving.

First and foremost is Dorothy Parker’s unforgettable pun on the word horticulture. It’s in Issue 3 (September 1997). Another great schwa pun is the one by Denis Norden in Issue 18 (March 2000), in which he likens a hi-hat to the poetry of Mallarmé.

Predictably, Bikwil also has some appalling rhymes that hinge on schwa’s unshakeable tenacity.

One is Percy’s Off-key in the Kitchen in Issue 4 (November 1997):

Trying to tune
To a bent tablespoon
Would be just a little bit awkward.

Why hit the thing,
When you know it won’t ring
As well as a new tuning fork would?

A year later, in Issue 10, in our Wagnerian edition of Down Limerick Lane, NonesuCH and our editor were again exploiting schwa in no uncertain terms. What language but English would dare allow us to rhyme words like Wagner and bargainer, or Matilda, builder, Brünnhilde, and gilder . . . plus even more outlandish combinations?

Issue 17 (January 2000) also has some rhymes that rely on schwa for their courage. Have a look at Henri Dandin’s ditty Les Musiques Imbéciles.

Yes. It may be over 700 years old, but English schwa is alive and kicking and, by the looks of it, here to stay globally.

Best we warn our overseas students, though.

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