|See also mid central vowel|
In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (//, rarely // or //; sometimes spelled shwa) is 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 of the ‘a’ in 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: shəwāʼ [ʃəˑwɒːʔ]), designating the Hebrew niqqud vowel sign shva (two vertical dots written beneath a letter): in Modern Hebrew, it 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 if this pronunciation is found neither in Modern Hebrew nor in Tiberian vocalization.)
The symbol ⟨ə⟩ was used first by Johann Andreas Schmeller for the reduced vowel at the end of the German name Gabe. Alexander John Ellis, in his palæotype alphabet, used it for the similar English sound in but //.
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 be written using any of the following letters:
- ‘a’, as in about [əˈbaʊt]
- ‘e’, as in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
- ‘i’, as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
- ‘o’, as in memory [ˈmɛməri]
- ‘u’, as in supply [səˈplaɪ]
- ‘y’, as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
- unwritten, as in rhythm [ˈɹɪðəm]
Schwa is a very short neutral vowel sound, and like all other vowels, its precise quality varies depending on the adjacent consonants. In most varieties of English, schwa occurs almost exclusively in unstressed syllables. (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 both stressed and unstressed schwas exist. To a certain extent, that is true for South African English as well.
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.
Welsh uses the letter ⟨y⟩ to represent schwa, which is a phonemic vowel rather than the realisation of an unstressed vowel. The letter ⟨y⟩ represents schwa in all positions except in final syllables where it represents /ɪ/ or /i/. For example, the word ysbyty (“hospital”) is pronounced /əsˈbəti/.
Quite a few languages have a sound similar to schwa. It is similar to a short French unaccented ⟨e⟩, which is rounded and less central, more like an open-mid or close-mid front rounded vowel. It is almost always unstressed, but Albanian, Bulgarian, Slovene and Afrikaans are some of the languages that allow stressed schwas.
Many Caucasian languages and some Uralic languages (like Komi) also use phonemic schwa, and allow schwas to be stressed. In the Eastern dialects of Catalan, including the standard 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’). A stressed schwa can occur in the Catalan dialects spoken in the Balearic Islands, as well as 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 Paraná).
In Neapolitan, a final, unstressed ⟨a⟩, and unstressed ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ are pronounced as a schwa: pìzza (‘pizza’), semmàna (‘week’), purtuàllo (‘orange’).
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 very different orthographic function in Modern Russian, is used.
In Korean, the letter (or rather jamo) is used, but it may also represent a “null” vowel used in the transcription of foreign consonant clusters, when it may be deleted. In most Sanskrit-based languages, the schwa ⟨अ⟩ is the implied vowel after every consonant and so has no didactic marks. For example, in Hindi, the character क is pronounced “kə” without marking, but के is pronounced “ke” (pronounced “kay”) with a marking.
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⟩. It can be stressed like in words i ëmbël /i əmbəl/ and ëndërr /əndər/ (‘sweet’ and ‘dream’, respectively).
In Armenian, schwa is represented by the letter ը (capital Ը). It is occasionally word-initial but usually word-final, as a form of the definite article. Unwritten schwa sounds are also inserted to split initial consonant clusters; for example, ճնճղուկ (čnčłuk) [tʃʼəntʃʼə’ʁuk] ‘sparrow’.
In Catalan, schwa is represented by the letters a or e in unstressed vowels: “pare” /ˈpaɾə/ (father), “Barcelona” /bəɾsəˈlonə/. In the Balearic Islands, the sound is sometimes also in stressed vowels, “pera” /ˈpəɾə/ (pear).
In Dutch, the digraph ⟨ij⟩ in the suffix -lijk [lək], as in waarschijnlijk [ʋaːrˈsxɛinlək] (‘probably’) is pronounced as a schwa. If an ⟨e⟩ falls at the ultimate (or penultimate) place before a consonant in Dutch words and is unstressed, it becomes a schwa, as in the verb ending “-en” (lopen) and the diminutive suffix “-tje(s)” (tafeltje(s)).
In Romanian, schwa is represented by letter Ă, ă, and it is a letter on its own (the second in the Romanian alphabet). It can be stressed in words in which 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: “cărțile” /ˈkərt͡sile/ (the books) and “odăi” /oˈdəj/ (rooms).
In the Indonesian variant, schwa is always unstressed except for Jakarta-influenced informal “Bahasa Indonesia” whose schwa can be stressed. In final closed syllables in the formal register, the vowel is a (the final syllable is usually the second syllable since most Bahasa Indonesia root words consist of two syllables). In some cases, the vowel a is pronounced as a stressed schwa (only when the vowel a is located between two consonants in a syllable), but never in formal speech:
- datang (=come), pronounced [dɑːˈtʌŋ], and often written as dateng in informal writing.
- kental (=viscous), pronounced [kənˈtʌl].
- hitam (=black), pronounced [hiˈtʌm], written as item in informal language.
- dalam (=deep, in), pronounced [dɑːˈlʌm], often written as dalem.
- malam (=night), pronounced [mʌˈlʌm], written as malem in informal language.
Indonesian orthography formerly used unmarked ⟨e⟩ only for the schwa sound, and the full vowel /e/ was written ⟨é⟩. Malaysian orthography, on the other hand, formerly indicated the schwa with ⟨ĕ⟩ (called pĕpĕt), and 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. There is no longer an orthographic distinction between /ə/ and /e/; both are spelled with an unmarked ⟨e⟩. This means that the pronunciation of any given letter e in both Indonesian and Malaysian variants is not immediately obvious to the learner and must be learned separately. However, in a number of Indonesian dictionaries and lesson books for foreign learners, the notation is preserved to help learners. For example, the word for ‘wheeled vehicle’ in Indonesia and 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 predominant in common Malaysian media, the final letter –a represents schwa, and 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 such as Mekah (<Arabic Makkah, Malay pronunciation [ˈməkah]).
The schwa is denoted in Welsh by the letter ‘y’. It is a very common letter as ‘y’ is the definite article with ‘yr’ being the definite article if the following word starts with a vowel.
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. The phenomenon has been termed the “schwa deletion rule” of Hindi. One formalization of the 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, the formalization is inexact and incomplete (it sometimes deletes a schwa that exists, and it fails to delete some schwas that it should) and so 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 (expected: Rāma), रचना is Rachnā (expected: Rachanā), वेद is Vēd (expected: Vēda) and नमकीन is Namkīn (expected: Namakīna).
Correct schwa deletion is critical also because the same Devanagari letter sequence can sometimes be pronounced two different ways in Hindi depending on the context: failure to delete the appropriate schwas can then change the meaning. 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. However, 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.
American English has the tendency to delete a schwa when it appears in a midword syllable that comes after the stressed syllable. Kenstowicz (1994) states, “American English schwa deletes in medial posttonic syllables”. He gives as examples words such as sep(a)rate (as an adjective), 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.
The comparative method establishes six short vowels for Proto-Indo-European. The phonetics of the typical reflexes make five vowels easy to arrange in a common system (“the Latin five”): i e a o u.
However, a sixth correspondence set is not so simple, ə in Indo-European languages (if it survives at all; in medial syllables, it is lost in Baltic and Slavic and reflected as u, in Germanic, if it is not lost; in Indic, the reflex is i, and in Iranian, the vowel is lost):
(1) Gothic fadar “father”, Latin pater, Greek patḗr, Old Irish athair /ˈaθirʲ/, but Vedic pitár-, Avestan pta, ta nominative singular (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 dŭšti, 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 the sixth vowel was put into the most available space, phonetically speaking: not high, not low, not front, not back, not rounded: *ə “schwa”.
That was not such a bad guess: in Indic, there are “prop-vowels” for otherwise impossible final consonant sequences, and they too become Vedic i: Vedic hā́rdi nominative singular “heart”. The original Indo-European paradigm was based on a neuter root-noun *ḱerd-/*ǵherd- whose endingless nominative singular, pre-Indo-European **ḱerd, **ǵherd had become Proto-Indo-European *ḱēr, *ǵhēr by simplification of the final cluster with compensatory lengthening of the vowel: 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 prop vowel. Any vowel would have done the job, but a neutral vowel is a usual choice: Proto-Indo-Iranian *źhārd-ə from which, by regular sound laws, hā́rdi. Another example is Vedic ákṣi nominative singular neuter “eye” from *akṣ (oblique stem akṣṇ-), root *okʷ (*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: the 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: 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 what is now known as the laryngeal theory was developing into its current form. It then was often referred to as the “theory of consonantal schwa”.
There is also a schwa secundum (usually, the indogermanicum is unsaid), which is some kind of reduced state of an originally short vowel. The reconstruction or reconstructions (two different schwas are commonly deployed) of 6 is only a stopgap. Its supposed reflexes are various and unpredictable, and the occurrence of the 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 and replacing one mystery by another. Most cases of schwa secundum are not really problems at all, being ordinary cases of levelling, or 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 the expected o is between a labial and a resonant consonant (núx reflects *nokʷt-s).
The Indo-European kinship terms built to a suffix that looks like *-ter-, “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-, and the subscript ring means “syllabic”, *māter- “mother” is actually *ma-h₂ter- etc.
- Sobkowiak, Włodzimierz (2004). English Phonetics for Poles (Third ed.). Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. p. 131. ISBN 83-7177-252-1.
- Oxford English Dictionary, under “schwa”.
- Anatoly Liberman, “Mid-June etymology gleanings,” June 14, 2017.
- “schwa”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House.
- Harper, Douglas. “schwa”. Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Rachael-Anne Knight(2012), Phonetics: A course book, Cambridge University Press, p.71.
- Breza, Edward; Treder, Jerzy (1981). Gramatyka kaszubska. Gdańsk: Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie. p. 16. ISBN 83-00-00102-6.
- Anderson, Deborah; Everson, Michael (2004-06-07). “L2/04-191: Proposal to encode six Indo-Europeanist phonetic characters in the UCS” (PDF).
- Asmah Haji Omar, “The Malay Spelling Reform”. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (2): 9–13. 1989. Archived from the original on 2010-07-06.
- Larry M. Hyman; Victoria Fromkin; Charles N. Li (1988), Language, speech, and mind (Volume 1988, Part 2), 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….
- 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 & Sudeshna Sarkar (July 2004), “A Diachronic Approach for Schwa Deletion in Indo Aryan Languages” (PDF), 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), “Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in Hindi text-to-speech synthesis” (PDF), International Journal of Speech Technology, (12:15–25),
…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….
- Monojit Choudhury & Anupam Basu (July 2004), “A Rule Based Schwa Deletion Algorithm for Hindi” (PDF), 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
- The dictionary definition of schwa at Wiktionary
- Marc van Oostendorp (1999). “Schwa in Phonological Theory”. Retrieved 2008-01-29.