ə ə ə the most versatile vowel
June 30, 2020 1:06 PM   Subscribe

Schwa (Never Stressed). In Episode 44 of the Lingthusiasm podcast, Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne get enthusiastic about the schwa (see blog for resources). The most recent, Episode 45 is on languages before recorded history. Episode 43 focuses on the singular they.
posted by spamandkimchi (23 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm very fond of this show! Need to catch up, I'm excited to uhhhhh my whole way through the schwa ep.
posted by cortex at 1:08 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:11 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

The schwa is utterly central to English phonology. I'm glad to see it receiving the proper emphasis.
posted by aws17576 at 1:26 PM on June 30 [12 favorites]

something something em-PHA-sis something syl-LAB-le
posted by little onion at 2:23 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

I went through grade school during a time when phonetics was the big focus. The schwa was kind of a big deal, as I recall.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:38 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

Yessss this show is so good, as is the book Because Internet

posted by DoctorFedora at 3:50 PM on June 30

The singular they episode is extra amazing and I wholeheartedly recommend anyone and everyone give it a listen.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:25 PM on June 30 [4 favorites]

I like this podcast a lot, but I only listen to it irregularly. I've got a lot catching up to do.
posted by nangar at 4:29 PM on June 30

There is a business in my neighborhood called Schwa, which I just find so charming.
posted by eirias at 4:47 PM on June 30

I'm always bothered that it's not "schwə."
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:32 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

OK, I have a serious question if there are any linguists in the house. The podcast mentions that the name "schwa" comes from a Hebrew vowel marking that represents the sound [e⁓ɛ]. I'm somewhat familiar with this sound's role in Hebrew -- it's often denoted by a mere apostrophe in Roman transliteration, and it does seem to play the "minimal vowel" role of the schwa in some ways; it disappears sometimes (like the French e muet) and is even used as a conversational filler (Israelis I've met say [eːːː] where I'd say "uhhh"). Meanwhile in English, we never use [e] as a "schwa-like vowel", but we do often use [ɪ] interchangeably with [ə].

So are "schwa-like vowels" an actual, like, thing (in the same way that rhotic consonants are a thing)?
posted by aws17576 at 9:42 PM on June 30

Linguist here. Schwa-like vowels are a thing but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘in the same way that tho tic consonants are’.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:21 AM on July 1

posted by iamkimiam at 12:22 AM on July 1

I think that refers to the way rhotics, despite variation in manner & place of articulation, seem to function as a natural class.

I would say the same is true for schwa-like vowels. One time in grad school we were hanging around comparing each other's accents (as lx grad students do), and we noticed that some of us (like me) had both [ə] and [ɨ] (barred I) as unstressed reduced vowels whereas others had only [ə] in all positions.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:34 AM on July 1

The schwa is utterly central to English phonology. I'm glad to see it receiving the proper emphasis.

Sounds like you're trying to make this a wedge issue.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:37 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

I went through grade school during a time when phonetics was the big focus.

When/where was this? I love it deeply.

Signed, went through grade school with a deep confusion about vowel letters versus vowel phonemes.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:49 AM on July 1

That makes sense. I’d say that if you can describe the sounds with +|- feature notation then you can claim they form a natural class, which you can in this case.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:45 AM on July 1

Hello, I am a phonologist. A phonological schwa is more than an articulation or particular vowel sound. It has a particular phonological identity and phonological properties. If you believe, as I do, that phonetics does not determine phonology, then there is no reason other vowels (barred I, open E) could not have the phonological qualities of schwa. Indeed, in French, the round central vowel is often phonetically indistinguishable from schwa. Schwa can only be identified through an investigation of its behavior (vowel/zero alternations, for example).

I think this is true for all of phonology, but as for rhotics, it is especially obvious in the case of schwa.
posted by os tuberoes at 2:19 AM on July 1 [6 favorites]

Good example of English regionality right there at the beginning when they treat "broken" as uncontroversially having a schwa.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:08 AM on July 1

Harvey Kilobit, thanks for that link.
"The very first step is to stop trying to hear a difference between /ə/ and /ʌ/. Acoustically, for speakers of General American English, there’s little to no difference between the two, and trying to listen to one will only bring you pain."
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:16 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Thanks, y'all. Os tuberoes, I'd love to learn more about that perspective on phonology in general! Could you suggest a reference or some terminology to search for, if it is not too much trouble?
posted by aws17576 at 10:44 AM on July 1

aws17576, sure, the framework in general is called substance-free phonology. Regarding rhotics, you can see this paper which I have plugged before, but was told it was cool to post. (NB I am the author of that paper). I feel that the conclusions reached for rhotics are applicable to the phonological object called schwa.
posted by os tuberoes at 11:36 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

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