|See also mid-central vowel|
In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (sometimes spelled shwa) refers to the mid-central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded) in the middle of the vowel chart, denoted by the IPA symbol ə, or another vowel sound close to that position. An example in English is the vowel sound in the 'a' of the word 'about'. Schwa in English is mainly found in unstressed positions, but in some other languages it occurs more frequently as a stressed vowel.
The word schwa is from the Hebrew word shva (שְׁוָא IPA: [ʃva], classical pronunciation: shewa’ [ʃəˈwa]), designating the Hebrew niqqud vowel sign shva (two vertical dots written beneath a letter), which in Modern Hebrew indicates either the phoneme /e/ or the complete absence of a vowel. (The Hebrew shva is also sometimes transliterated using the schwa symbol ə, even though the schwa vowel is not representative either of the modern Hebrew pronunciation of shva or of earlier pronunciations; see Tiberian vocalization → Mobile Shwa.) The term was introduced into European linguistics by Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century, so the spelling sch is German in origin. It was first used in English texts between 1890 and 1895.
In English, schwa is the most common vowel sound. It is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables, especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Depending on dialect, it may correspond to any of the following written letters:
- 'a', as in about [əˈbaʊt]
- 'e', as in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
- 'i', as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
- 'o', as in eloquent [ˈɛləkʰwənt]
- 'u', as in supply [səˈpʰlaɪ]
- 'y', as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
- various combinations of letters, such as 'ai' in mountain [ˈmaʊntən]
- unwritten as in rhythm [ˈrɪðəm]
Schwa 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 occurs almost exclusively in unstressed syllables (although there is also an open-mid central unrounded vowel or "long schwa", represented as ɜː, which occurs in some non-rhotic dialect stressed syllables, as in bird and alert). In New Zealand English the high front lax vowel (as in the word bit) has shifted open and back to sound like schwa, and this dialect both stressed and unstressed schwas. To a certain extent, this is also true for South African English. In General American, schwa and ɜː are the two vowel sounds that can be r-colored (rhotacized); r-colored schwa is used in words with unstressed "er" syllables, such as dinner. See also Stress and vowel reduction in English.
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, more like an open-mid or close-mid front rounded vowel. It is almost always unstressed, though Albanian, Bulgarian, Slovene and Afrikaans are some of the languages that allow stressed schwas. In most dialects of Russian an unstressed ⟨a⟩ or ⟨o⟩ reduces to a schwa. In dialects of Kashubian a schwa occurs in place of the old Polish short consonants u, i, y. Many Caucasian languages and some Uralic languages (e.g. Komi) also use phonemic schwa, and allow schwas to be stressed. In Dutch, the vowel of the suffix -lijk, as in waarschijnlijk ('probably') is pronounced as a schwa. Anytime an ⟨e⟩ falls at the end of Dutch words, it becomes a schwa. Compare de and het. In the Eastern dialects of Catalan, including the standard language variety, based in the dialect spoken in and around Barcelona, an unstressed ⟨a⟩ or ⟨e⟩ is pronounced as a schwa (called "vocal neutra", 'neutral vowel'). In the dialects of Catalan spoken in the Balearic Islands, a stressed schwa can occur. Stressed schwa can occur in Romanian as in mătură [ˈməturə] ('broom'). In European and some African dialects of Portuguese, the schwa occurs in many unstressed syllables that end in ⟨e⟩, such as noite ('night'), tarde ('afternoon'), pêssego ('peach'), and pecado ('sin'). However, that is rare in Brazilian Portuguese except in such areas as Curitiba in the state of Paraná. In Neapolitan, a final, unstressed ⟨a⟩, and unstressed ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ are pronounced as a schwa: pìzza ('pizza'), semmàna ('week'), purtuàllo ('orange') . The inherent vowel in the Devanagari script, an abugida used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit is a schwa, written ⟨अ⟩ in isolation or to begin a word.
Other characters used to represent this sound include ⟨ը⟩ in Armenian, ⟨ă⟩ in Romanian, and ⟨ë⟩ in Albanian. In Bulgarian Cyrillic, the letter ⟨ъ⟩, which has a much different orthographic function in modern Russian, is used. In Korean, the letter (or rather jamo) ㅡ is used, though it may also represent a "null" vowel used in the transcription of foreign consonant clusters, where it may be deleted. In most Sanskrit based languages, the Schwa ⟨अ⟩ serves as an implied vowel after every consonant and requires no didactic marks. For example, in Hindi, the character क is pronounced "kə" without marking, while के is pronounced "ke" (as in okay) with a marking.
Examples in other languages
In Albanian, schwa is represented by the letter ⟨ë⟩, which is also one of the letters of the Albanian alphabet, coming right after the letter ⟨e⟩. Schwa in Albanian can be stressed like in words i ëmbël /i əmbəl/ and ëndërr /əndərr/ ('sweet' and 'dream', respectively).
In Armenian, schwa is represented by the letter ը (capital Ը). This is occasionally seen word-initially, but often finally, as a form of the definite article. Unwritten schwa sounds are also inserted to break up initial consonant clusters; for example, ճնճղուկ [tʃəntʃə'ʁuk] 'sparrow'.
In Romanian schwa is represented by letter Ă, ă, and it is a letter on its own (second in the Romanian alphabet). Unlike some other languages (like English or French), it can be stressed in words where it is the only vowel such as "păr" /pər/ (hair or pear tree) or "văd" /vəd/ (I see). Some words, which also contain other vowels, can have the stress on ă, like in the examples "cărțile" /ˈkərt͡sile/ (the books) and "odăi" /oˈdəj/ (rooms).
Indonesian and Malaysian
In Indonesian, schwa can be stressed or not. Generally, the letter ⟨e⟩ is read as a schwa.
There is also a phenomenon of pronouncing the a in the final syllable (usually second syllable, since most Indonesian root words consist of two syllables) as a stressed schwa. This is only done in colloquial informal speech but never in formal speech.
- datang (=come), pronounced [daˈtəŋ], and often written as dateng in informal writing.
- kental (=viscous), pronounced [kənˈtəl].
- hitam (=black), pronounced [iˈtəm], written as item in informal language.
- dalam (=deep, in), pronounced [daˈləm], often written as dalem.
- malam (=night), pronounced [maˈləm], written as malem in informal language.
Indonesian orthography formerly used unmarked ⟨e⟩ only for the schwa sound, while the full vowel /e/ was written ⟨é⟩. Malay orthography, on the other hand, formerly indicated the schwa with ⟨ĕ⟩ (called pĕpĕt), while unmarked ⟨e⟩ stood for /e/.
In the 1972 spelling reform that unified Indonesian and Malaysian spelling conventions (Ejaan yang Disempurnakan, regulated by MABBIM), it was agreed to use neither diacritic. Hence there is no orthographic distinction any longer between /ə/ and /e/; both are spelled with unmarked ⟨e⟩. This means the pronunciation of any given letter e in Indonesian and Malay is not immediately obvious to the learner, and must be learned separately. However, in a number of Indonesian dictionaries and Indonesian lesson books for foreign learners, the notation is preserved to help learners produce the right pronunciation. For example, the word for 'train' in Indonesia or 'wheeled vehicle' in Malaysia, which was formerly spelled keréta in Indonesia and kĕreta in Malaysia, is now spelled kereta in both countries.
In southern Malaysian pronunciation, which is considered the standard, the final letter -a represents schwa, while final -ah stands for /a/. The dialect of Kedah in northern Malaysia, however, pronounces final -a as /a/ also. In loanwords, a nonfinal short /a/ may become schwa in Malay. For example, Mekah (<Arabic Makkah, Malay pronunciation [ˈməkah]).
In Korean, schwa is represented by the letter ㅓ and is one of the five basic vowels, all unrelated with stress/accent. Though less satisfactory since there is no corresponding letter in English alphabet for this vowel, a commonly accepted Romanization scheme is 'eo'.
Although the Devanagari script is used as a standard to write modern Hindi, the schwa (ə, sometimes written as a) implicit in each consonant of the script is "obligatorily deleted" at the end of words and in certain other contexts. This phenomenon has been termed the "schwa syncope rule" or the "schwa deletion rule" of Hindi. One formalization of this rule has been summarized as ə -> ø | VC_CV. In other words, when a vowel-preceded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, the schwa inherent in the first consonant is deleted. However, this formalization is inexact and incomplete (i.e. sometimes deletes a schwa when it shouldn't or, at other times, fails to delete it when it should), and can yield errors. Schwa deletion is computationally important because it is essential to building text-to-speech software for Hindi.
As a result of schwa syncope, the correct Hindi pronunciation of many words differs from that expected from a literal rendering of Devanagari. For instance, राम is Rām (incorrect: Rāma), रचना is Rachnā (incorrect: Rachanā), वेद is Vēd (incorrect: Vēda) and नमकीन is Namkīn (incorrect: Namakīna).
Correct schwa deletion is also critical because, in some cases, the same Devanagari letter-sequence is pronounced two different ways in Hindi depending on context, and failure to delete the appropriate schwas can change the sense of the word. For instance, the sequence धड़कने in दिल धड़कने लगा ("the heart started beating") and in दिल की धड़कनें ("beats of the heart") is identical prior to the nasalization in the second usage. Yet, it is pronounced dhadak.ne in the first and dhad.kaneṁ in the second. While native speakers correctly pronounce the sequence differently in different contexts, non-native speakers and voice-synthesis software can make them "sound very unnatural", making it "extremely difficult for the listener" to grasp the intended meaning.
English has the tendency to delete schwa when it appears in a mid-word syllable that comes after the stressed syllable. Kenstowicz (1994) states that "... American English schwa deletes in medial posttonic syllables ...", and gives as examples words such as sep(a)rate, choc(o)late, cam(e)ra and elab(o)rate (as an adjective), where the schwa (represented by the letters in parentheses) has a tendency to be deleted.
Schwa is deleted in certain positions in French.
Schwa [primum] indogermanicum
The comparative method establishes six short vowels for Proto-Indo-European. Thanks to the phonetics of the typical reflexes, five of these are easy to arrange in a commonplace system ("the Latin five"): i e a o u.
But a sixth correspondence set is not so simple, namely ə in European languages (where it survives at all; in medial syllables, it's lost in Baltic and Slavic and reflected as u in Germanic, if not lost; in Indic the reflex is i, and in Iranian the vowel is lost). Examples: (1) Gothic fadar "father", Latin pater, Greek patḗr, Old Irish athair /aθəρ´/, but Vedic pitár-, Avestan pta, ta nom. sg. (the form pita scans as a monosyllable and is presumably an orthographic artifact). (2) Gothic dauhtar (Old High German tohter and similar old Germanic forms), Old Church Slavic dŭštr, Lithuanian duktė, Vedic duhitár-, Avestan duγðar, but Greek thugátēr.
The obvious slots were all taken, by five short vowel reconstructions with strong phonetic claims, and the etymon for this sixth vowel was so to say tucked into the roomiest available space, phonetically speaking: not high, not low, not front, not back, i.e. *ə "schwa".
And this was not such a bad guess: in Indic, there are "prop-vowels" for otherwise impossible final consonant sequences, and these, too, become Vedic i: Vedic hā́rdi nom.sg. "heart". The original Indo-European paradigm was based on a neuter root-noun *ḱerd-/*ǵherd-, whose endingless nom.sg., pre-Indo-European **ḱerd, **ǵherd had become Proto-Indo-European *ḱēr, *ǵhēr by simplification of the final cluster with compensatory lengthening of the vowel, hence Greek kêr, Hittite HEART-er; in Indic, the root-final *d was restored in the nominative singular, based on all the other cases, but at a cost: a word-final cluster /rd/ is phonologically impossible in Indic, a problem resolved by a phonological commonplace known as a prop-vowel; any vowel would have done, but a neutral vowel is the usual choice: Proto-Indo-Iranian *źhārd-ə whence by regular sound laws hā́rdi. Another example is Ved. ákṣi endingless nom.sg. neut. "eye" from *akṣ (oblique stem akṣṇ-), root *okʷ (i.e., *H₃ekʷ).
This "schwa primum indogermanicum" was, however, always slightly odd. Seemingly independent occurrences, as in the "father" words, were rare. More commonly, *ə alternated with long vowels, in a clearly patterned system, parallel to the alternation between a short vowel and zero: root *sed "sit" has forms as such in Sanskrit (sadati "is sitting") but the reduplicated present, sīdati "sits down" reflects *si-sd- with zero grade of the root, i.e., the vowel has dropped. Compare the Indic root sthā "stand", with such forms as ásthāt aorist "he stood", but the participle, where the root vowel should drop, is sthi-tá- "stood" with -i- from schwa.
Eventually, "schwa indogermanicum" was radically reinterpreted as the reflexe of the syllabic "laryngeals" (consonants), and as what is now known as the Laryngeal Theory was developing into its current form, it was often referred to, at the time, as the "theory of consonantal schwa".
There is also a "schwa secundum" (usually the "indogermanicum" is unsaid), namely some kind of reduced state of an originally short vowel. This reconstruction, or rather these reconstructions—two different schwas are commonly deployed—is a stopgap, purely. Its supposed reflexes are various and unpredictable, the occurrence of these vowels has no morphological anchor, unlike the whole rest of the ablaut (vowel alternation) system. In terms of linguistic reconstruction, therefore, it has no explanatory value, being a case of putting the rabbit into the hat for the purpose of taking it back out again. In more technical terms, a "schwa secundum" in a reconstruction is actually a case of removing an attested mystery into the protolanguage, which is to say, replacing one mystery by another. Most cases of "schwa secundum" are not really problems at all, being ordinary cases of leveling, or else the phenomena have other and better explanations. For example, the occurrence of -u- in Greek for expected -o-, as in núx "night" and phúllon "leaf" (cf. Latin nox, folium) seems to be regular when expected o is between a labial and a resonant consonant (núx reflects *nokʷt-s).
Note: the Indo-European kinship terms built to a suffix that looks like *-ter-, i.e. "father, mother, brother, daughter," and "husband's brother's wife" (Sanskrit yātar-), are actually formed by a suffix *-əter-, i.e. -h₂ter-. That is, "*pəter-" is morphologically *p-h̥₂ter-, where the subscript ring means "syllabic", *māter- "mother" is actually *ma-h₂ter-, and so on.
- Oxford English Dictionary, under "schwa".
- "schwa". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House.
- Harper, Douglas. "schwa". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Breza, Edward; Treder, Jerzy (1981). Gramatyka kaszubska. Gdańsk: Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie. p. 16. ISBN 83-00-00102-6.
- Asmah Haji Omar, "The Malay Spelling Reform". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (2): 9–13. 1989.
- Larry M. Hyman, Victoria Fromkin, Charles N. Li (1988 (Volume 1988, Part 2)), Language, speech, and mind, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0-415-00311-3, "... The implicit /a/ is not read when the symbol appears in word-final position or in certain other contexts where it is obligatorily deleted (via the so-called schwa-deletion rule which plays a crucial role in Hindi word phonology ..." Check date values in:
- Tej K. Bhatia (1987), A history of the Hindi grammatical tradition: Hindi-Hindustani grammar, grammarians, history and problems, BRILL, ISBN 90-04-07924-6, "... Hindi literature fails as a reliable indicator of the actual pronunciation because it is written in the Devanagari script ... the schwa syncope rule which operates in Hindi ..."
- Monojit Choudhury, Anupam Basu and Sudeshna Sarkar (July 2004), A Diachronic Approach for Schwa Deletion in Indo Aryan Languages, Proceedings of the Workshop of the ACL Special Interest Group on Computational Phonology (SIGPHON) (Association for Computations Linguistics), "... schwa deletion is an important issue for grapheme-to-phoneme conversion of IAL, which in turn is required for a good Text-to-Speech synthesizer ..."
- Naim R. Tyson, Ila Nagar (2009 (12:15–25)), Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in hindi text-to-speech synthesis, International Journal of Speech Technology, "... Without the appropriate deletion of schwas, any speech output would sound unnatural. Since the orthographical representation of Devanagari gives little indication of deletion sites, modern TTS systems for Hindi implemented schwa deletion rules based on the segmental context where schwa appears ..." Check date values in:
- Monojit Choudhury and Anupam Basu (July 2004), A Rule Based Schwa Deletion Algorithm for Hindi, Proceedings of the International Conference On Knowledge-Based Computer Systems, "... Without any schwa deletion, not only the two words will sound very unnatural, but it will also be extremely difficult for the listener to distinguish between the two, the only difference being nasalization of the e at the end of the former. However, a native speaker would pronounce the former as dha.D-kan-eM and the later as dha.Dak-ne, which are clearly distinguishable ..."
- Kenstowicz, Michael J. (1994), Phonology in generative grammar, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-55786-426-0