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26. Schwa

Daniel Silverman

Subject Theoretical Linguistics » Phonetics, Phonology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405184236.2011.00028.x


Inspection of the chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) would suggest that schwa is a vowel like any other; a central open-mid/close-mid unrounded vowel, slightly higher than [ɐ], slightly more central than [ʌ]: i.e. [ə]. Indeed, as the IPA chart necessarily provides idealized phonetic descriptions of its symbols, then, articulatorily speaking, schwa-qua-schwa is just as the IPA chart indicates, as in (1). In practice, however, the label “schwa” has been applied to a phonological value that is especially variable in its phonetic properties. In terms of their quality, vowels labeled “schwa” vary to the extent of encompassing a large portion of the vowel space, while tending to gravitate toward the center of this space (see e.g. Browman and Goldstein 1992 for English schwa). This variability is usually a consequence of schwa's context: flanking consonants and vowels may have a significant co-articulatory influence on schwa's phonetic starting and ending postures, typically far more co-articulatory influence than on vowels of other qualities. In terms of duration – a phonetic property that the IPA vowel chart does not indicate – schwa is typically quite short, and this short duration may co-vary with its tendency to be co-articulated. In acoustic terms, schwa's resonance structure may be modeled (as a first approximation) by a tube that has no significant constrictions ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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