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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Slate: "Earth" Without "Art" Is Just "Eh"


The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech





A version of this post appeared on The Week:


pennyfromhappyendingsisabigfanoftheschwa
Penny from Happy Endings is a big fan of the schwa.
(Facebook.com/HappyEndings)


We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That's why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ—an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.


1. ANY WRITTEN VOWEL CAN BE A SPOKEN SCHWA
A schwa is the 'uh' sound found in an unstressed syllable. For example, the first syllable in amazing (ǝ-MA-zing), the first syllable in tenacious (tǝ-NA-cious), the second syllable in replicate (RE-plǝ-cate), the second syllable in percolate (PER-cǝ-late), the first syllable in supply (sǝ –PLY), the first syllable in syringe (sǝ-RINGE). That's a written A, E, I, O, U and even a Y coming out as schwa in the spoken version.


2. IT'S THE MOST COMMON VOWEL SOUND IN ENGLISH
And this can make things very hard for English learners, because we don't represent it in regular writing. You have to use clues about stress and syllable structure to figure out where to put it.


3. THE WORD "SCHWA" COMES FROM HEBREW
In Hebrew writing, "shva" is a vowel diacritic that can be written under letters to indicate an 'eh' sound (which is not the same as our schwa). The term was first used in linguistics by 19th century Germany philologists, which is why we use the German spelling, "schwa."


4. THE Ǝ SYMBOL WAS INVENTED TO SHOW HOW PEOPLE REALLY TALKED
The upside down e was first used as a symbol for the schwa sound by Johann Schmeller in his 1821 grammar of Bavarian German. Because he was describing the specific properties of a particular dialect, he needed a way to represent actual pronunciation.


5. BEFORE PEOPLE STARTED CALLING IT "SCHWA" IN ENGLISH (AROUND 1895) IT HAD A LOT OF NICKNAMES
It's been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel.


6. ENGLISH HAS A TENDENCY TO DELETE A SYLLABLE WITH A SCHWA
What happened to the third syllable in the following words? Caramel (car-mel), separate (sep-rate), different (dif-rent), chocolate (choc-late), camera (cam-ra). They fell victim to a terrible disease called schwa syncope (or schwa deletion). Actually, it's not so terrible, and it happens in lots of languages. A schwa syllable following the syllable that bears the main stress says, "well I'm not really needed here anyway" and skips town.


7. BUT ENGLISH SOMETIMES HAS A TENDENCY TO STICK IN EXTRA SCHWA SYLLABLES
In some dialects a schwa shows up to help bust up difficult consonant clusters. This process, called schwa epenthesis, can turn realtor into real-ǝ-tor, athlete into ath-ǝ-lete, nuclear into nuc-yǝ-ler, and film into fi-lǝm. It can also come in handy in drawing out words for dramatic effect, as in "cǝ-raaaaaa-zy!"


8. SCHWA IS SO PREVALENT BECAUSE ENGLISH IS A STRESS-TIMED LANGUAGE
Some languages are syllable-timed, like Spanish, where each syllable is roughly the same length, giving the impression of a steady "machine-gun" rhythm. English is a stress-timed language, meaning that the rhythmic impression is based on the regular timing of stress peaks, not syllables. If you want to speed up in Spanish, you shorten the length of all the syllables. If you want to speed up in English, you close the distance between stressed syllables. How? By greatly reducing the unstressed syllables. What vowel do unstressed syllables tend to get? Schwa. Here's a good explanation of stress-timing with examples.


9. IT'S THE LAZIEST SOUND THERE IS
Which is not a value judgment! I love schwa! But of all the sounds we use, it demands the least of us. All you have to do to make a schwa is start up the vocal cords. Other sounds require you to raise or lower the tongue, or move it forward or backward. They ask you to move your lips, or open your jaw. The schwa just is. Serene and undemanding. The vibration of air through the body to the outside world. The essence of speech itself.

Arika Okrent holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages.

New York Times: The Last To Know

Often the last to know when I was the subject of derogatory speech, I would react at times proactively pretending to be in on everyone's ongoing joke and going with the apparent flow to show good form. Usually, the paranoia was unwarranted and I learned how to pay attention to non-verbal queues more. I guessed at what Cool was. My first real teacher was a high school Janitor called Frosty. Experience trumps Education Degrees 80% of the time. For the remaining 20% I acquiesce they are equal.

"Caught Inside" Lyrics: reach inside your mind cause we don't ask for much dream it's a beautiful sleep and we don't ask for much at all it's heavy on my heart when you gonna start it's another world caught in between all the lies you run you're spun around why did you wait so long when were you planning on saying fear that i might be lost that you were after it all along who says you need a plan at all you had it all we had it all caught inside getting real coincide with the fear step outside before the dawn before you're gone somebody's road to roam is another man's home a trip you hold you hold too close too close for comfort why did you wait so long when were you planning on saying fear that i might be lost that you were after it all along who said you need a plan at all you had it all we had it all caught inside getting real coincide with the fear step outside before the dawn before you're gone why make it all bigger why make it up why make it all bigger why make it up caught inside getting real coincide with the fear step inside before the dawn before you're gone caught inside getting real coincide with the fear step inside before the dawn before you're gone

"What I've Done" Lyrics: In this farewell There's no blood There's no alibi 'Cause I've drawn regret From the truth Of a thousand lies [Pre-Chorus:] So let mercy come And wash away What I've done [Chorus:] I'll face myself To cross out what i've become Erase myself And let go of what i've done Put to rest What you thought of me While I clean this slate With the hands of uncertainty [Pre-Chorus] [Chorus] For what I've done I start again And whatever pain may come Today this ends I'm forgiving what I've done!!! [Chorus] What I've done Forgiving what I've done

Care Givers, Care Takers, and The Careless