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Schwa's phonological representation

This section is about the phonological representation of schwa. Having vocalic as its only segmental feature, schwa is a defective, virtually featureless, and minimally specified vowel. On the grounds of its behaviour as a long vowel, schwa might be assigned two structural phonological positions, but due to the fact that it can be part of a centring diphthong, one position seems to be more appropriate. Since schwa patterns with the long and the short vowels, it might be hypothesized that it is neutral with respect to the distinction short-long.


Ideally, the phonological representation of schwa should enable us to account for the fact a) that schwa is a weak (indistinct) vowel and b) that it may behave as a long vowel. The latter might lead us to assume that schwa occupies two structural phonological positions, which is Trommelen's (1984:66) view. Its weakness (indistinctness) can be captured by representing it as a defective, virtually featureless, minimally specified vowel. One might therefore adopt the representation in (1) below, which is in the vein of the one of Dutch schwa in Booij (1995):

Figure 1: Representation of schwa (first option)

[click image to enlarge]
Since one must be able to single out schwa in the formulation of generalizations and rules and/or constraints, the diacritic feature 'u' unstressable has been added.

The representation given in figure (1), however, leads to a serious problem for the centring diphthongs (see diphthongs in Frisian). These consist of a short close or half-close vowel and schwa. Now, if schwa occupies two positions, as in (1), the centring diphthongs would occupy three such positions. This is at odds with the general assumption that the syllable nucleus may occupy no more than two (see the size of the word-internal and word-final syllable rhyme). Moreover, such tripositional diphthongs would link up with the long vowel + glide sequences (see sequences of three or four vowels), which would have consequences for the position in the word in which they are allowed to occur:

  1. word-finally,
  2. before schwa or schwa + sonorant,
  3. before /-t/ and /-ts/ (Visser 1997:118-124).

But this is not entirely in keeping with the facts. Unlike long vowel + glide sequences, centring diphthongs do not occur before schwa (+ consonant); this can be explained as an OCP-effect, i.e. as resulting from a ban on two adjacent identical segments (schwa's). Just like long vowels and falling diphthongs, centring diphthongs occur in word-final position and they are also allowed to precede /-t/ and /-ts/.This, however, is only part of the story, for centring diphthongs can be followed by members of all consonant classes (save voiceless fricatives), a strong indication that they occupy no more than two structural positions. This, however, would imply that schwa occupies only one position, which is at odds with (1). Therefore, we might envisage the possibility that schwa's representation is as in (2):

Figure 2: Representation of schwa (second option)

[click image to enlarge]
Schwa is represented here as an essentially featureless, minimally specified vowel. This accounts for its vocalic weakness:
  1. its unclear quality and weak timbre;
  2. its susceptibility to co-articulatory influence from the consonants and vowels by which it is surrounded;
  3. its not being able to be the only vowel of a word;
  4. its not being able to occupy the first, strong, position of a word;
  5. its restricted syllabic possibilities;
  6. its not being able to bear stress.

Due to its minimal specification, schwa serves as the final stage from full vowel to zero. The reduction of a full vowel can be understood as the loss of all phonological features, of which only +voc remains. Conversely, the strengthening of schwa to a full vowel, and the subsequent attraction of stress, as in grou'w[e:]lich/ɡrɔuəl+ə γ/horrible, terrible (from grouw[ə]lich) and Fer'w[ɛ]rderadiel/fɛrvəd+əra#diəl/ (from Ferw[ə]r­deradiel, name of a rural district the principal village of which is Ferwert) results from the addition of phonological features. Schwa is also the ideal target for vowel deletion and vowel insertion, since the steps from schwa to zero (deletion) and the one from zero to schwa (insertion) are relatively small.

In figure (2), schwa is linked to one structural position. This means that it would have to count as a short vowel. However, as seen above, schwa patterns with the long vowels in some respects, whereas it also contrasts with the short vowels. One, therefore, might hypothesize that, due to its minimal phonological specification, the vowel schwa is neutral with respect to the distinction short-long.

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Trommelen, Mieke1984The Syllable in DutchDordrechtForis
  • Visser, Willem1997The Syllable in FrisianVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis
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