Uh, What’s a Schwa?

In a discussion several days ago of the deletion in spoken American English of the word “of” in the expression “a couple of,” so that “a couple of friends” becomes “a couple friends,” New York Times language columnist William Safire wrote:

A schwa? What’s a schwa?

Look it up in a dictionary, and you’ll find something like this:

That should ring a bell for some of you. “Aha,” you will say, noting the Hebrew derivation. “A schwa is a shva!

Indeed it is. A schwa is a shva, and a shva is a Hebrew vowel sign consisting of two vertical dots that look like a colon and that are placed, like most Hebrew vowel signs, beneath a consonant.

And what vowel sound does a Hebrew shva stand for? In traditional Hebrew grammar there are two kinds of shvas: the shva na, or “moving shva,” as it is called, and the shva nah., or “resting shva.” The resting shva has no sound at all, and is placed beneath a consonant that ends a syllable in midword, such as the letter Gimmel in migdal, “tower,” or the letter Lammed in shulh.an, “table.” (A vowel-less consonant at the end of a Hebrew word takes no vowel sign at all.) The moving shva, on the other hand, has both a theoretical sound and an actual one. The former is, as Mr. Safire says of the schwa, a short, unstressed “uh” sound; the latter is often a weakened or even inaudible version of the former. In Israeli Hebrew, for instance, a shva under the letter Bet is a short “uh” sound in b’seder, “all right”; an even shorter one in b’dih.ah, “joke” and inaudible in b’li, “without,” whose consonants are pronounced like the “bl-” in the English “black.”

Given these complications, you might ask, why would anyone want to turn a shva into a schwa and use the term to describe a kind of vowel in English or any other language other than Hebrew?

Actually, when Schwa entered German from Hebrew in the 19th century, it first did so in the discourse of Bible scholars and Hebraists who were thinking only of the Hebrew shva. Yet, eventually linguists discovered that, applied to other languages as well, the word was a handy little tool. This was because while many, perhaps the majority, of the world’s written languages had schwas in their phonetic system, none of them, apart from Hebrew, had a special word or symbol for them.

Take English, which is full of schwas, even if most English speakers aren’t aware of it. Why aren’t they? For the simple reason that, since all five of the written English vowel signs, “a,” “e,” “i,” “o” and “u,” are sometimes pronounced as schwas, we don’t especially connect the schwa sound with any of them. Think, for example, of the “a” in “around”; the first “e” in “cooperate’; the “i” in “Popsicle”; the “o” in “harmony,” and the “u” in “underneath.” All are schwas, yet English has no native word to denote the sound of them.

Moreover, the same vowel in the same English word can sometimes be a schwa and sometimes not, depending on the level of formality, the speed and the regional accent one is speaking with. In informal speech, for instance, the “o” of “together” is always a schwa, but in a formal address it may be pronounced like the “oo” in “too.” If you speak slowly, you may articulate the second “i” of “intensify” like the first one, whereas if you speed up, you’ll turn it into a schwa, too. And in much of America, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard — New York, of course, included — the final “-er” of words like “father,” “farmer,” etc., notoriously tends to become a schwa as well.

This is equally true of many other languages. In French, the letters “e” and “o” are often pronounced as schwas (as in quatre, “four,” or donner, “to give”), but French has no word or symbol for the schwa sound either. Indeed, one generally can tell which languages have schwas and which don’t by whether their speakers can pronounce them when speaking English. A Frenchman has no difficulty in saying the English word “but” correctly; a Spanish speaker does — and Spanish is schwa-less.

And so Hebrew, which has given the world such words as “hallelujah,” “cabal” and “uzi,” can also chalk up little “schwa.” It’s not a word you’ll find yourself using a whole lot, unless you happen to be a linguist, but it doesn’t hurt to know it.

And if you read the previous sentence aloud and said “t’know it,” you’ll now be able to tell your friends what you did.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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