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Schwa

See Schwa (art) for the underground artist.


In linguistics and phonology, schwa is the tonally-neutral, mid-central unrounded vowel sound, exactly in the middle of the vowel chart. In IPA phonetic transcription, it is written as ə (rotated e).

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Origin of the term

The word "schwa" (pronounced "shəwa", later "shəva") is Hebrew for "nought" -- it originally referred to one of the niqqud vowel points used with the Hebrew alphabet, which looks like a vertical pair of dots under a letter. This sign has two uses, one to indicate the schwa vowel-sound and one to indicate the complete absence of a vowel. These uses do not conflict because schwa is, in Hebrew, an epenthetic vowel, the equivalent of "no vowel at all".


The Schwa sound

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, the unstressed vowel in many unstressed syllables, like the 'a' in about or the 'o' in synonym. It is most easily described as sounding like the British English "er" or the American English "uh". It is a very short neutral vowel sound, and like all vowels, its precise quality varies depending on the adjacent consonants. In most varieties of English, schwa only occurs in unstressed syllables, but in New Zealand English and South African English the high front lax vowel (as in the word bit) has shifted open and back to sound like schwa, and these dialects contrast stressed and unstressed schwas.

Quite a few languages have a sound similar to schwa. It is similar to a short French unaccented e, which in that language is rounded and less central. It is almost always unstressed, though Bulgarian and Afrikaans are two languages that allow stressed schwas. In the Dutch language, the vowel of the suffix -lijk, as in waarschijnlijk (probably) is pronounced as a schwa. In some varieties of Catalan (notably Barceloni) an unstressed "a" is pronounced as a schwa.

Other spellings of the sound include in Lithuanian, ă in Romanian, and in Albanian.

The Schwa symbol

The schwa symbol ə is used as a grapheme in various languages:

  • In Azeri it represents a front a vowel. But, when using ə, the Azeri language has problems with the Turkish encoding, so sometimes has been used instead.
  • In the Latin Chechen alphabet. The use of this alphabet is politically significant (as Russia prefers the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, against the separatists' preference for Latin).
  • In the Latin transliteration of Avestan. The corresponding long vowel is written as schwa-macron ə̄.
  • In some Cyrillic alphabets including: Kazakh, Bashkir, Udmurt and other languages of the ex-USSR; see Schwa (Cyrillic).

In languages where the schwa represents a full phoneme, and may appear word-initially, a capitalized version is sometimes required. In some cases, capital schwa looks like a larger version of the schwa symbol, encoded as U+18f Ə, but an inverted capital E has also been used, e.g. for Avestan personal names (U+18e Ǝ).

Schwa Indogermanicum

The term "schwa" is also used for vowels of uncertain quantity (rather than neutral sound) in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language. It was observed that, while for the most part "a" in Sanskrit corresponds to "a" in Latin and Ancient Greek, there are instances where Sanskrit has "i" while Latin and Greek have "a", such as pitar (Sanskrit) vs pater (Latin and Ancient Greek). This postulated "schwa indogermanicum" evolved into the theory of the so-called laryngeals. Most scholars of Proto-Indo-European would now postulate three different phonemes rather than a single indistinct schwa. Some scholars postulate yet more, to explain further problems in the Proto-Indo-European vowel system. Most reconstructions of *- ə- in older literature would correspond to *-h2- in contemporary notation.

Last updated: 10-19-2005 13:49:08
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