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The mid-central vowel /ə/
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The mid-central vowel /ə/ is found as a lexical vowel in the unstressed syllable of words as in (1a), as a possible reduction vowel in the unstressed syllables of words as in (1b), and as an epenthetic vowel in final consonant clusters in words as in (1c).

Example 1

a. beroep /bə.rup/ [bəˈrup] profession
haven /ha.və(n)/ [ˈhavə(n)] harbour
b. apparaat /ɑpa.rat/ [ɑpəˈrat] appliance
chocola /ʃo.ko.la/ [ʃokəˈla] chocolate
c. kerk /kɛrk/ [ˈkɛr(ə)k] church
palm /pɑlm/ [ˈpɑl(ə)m] palm

Figure 1(cf. Gussenhoven 1992) depicts the (Dutch) vowel's position within the vowel chart.

Figure 1: Vowel chart

[click image to enlarge]

Articulation
/ə/ is highly variable in its realisation, among speakers as well as subject to the linguistic context (Van Bergem 1994). It is generally unrounded, but can often be rounded, especially word-finally (Collins and Mees 2003), and some speakers may have rounding generally. It is usually a mid, central vowel, but displays variation according to the surrounding segmental context, and may also be closer to the /ʏ/ (high-mid, front-central) for some speakers (cf. Eijkman 1937; see also figure 3 below).

Duration
/ə/ is phonetically short; on average, it is considerably shorter than full short vowels (Koopmans-van Beinum 1994), but there is a large range of variation. Reported durations are 68 ms for /CəCV/ and 76 ms for /VCəC/ (Van Bergem 1994) in elicited read speech.

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[+] Acoustics: vowel quality

Formant values vary with the type of speech, gender of the speaker, and speech community (the Netherlands or Flanders). Below are the reported average F1/F2 values from /CəCV/ words and /VCC/ words by Van Bergem (1994), for three speakers of Northern Standard Dutch.

Table 1
/CəCV/ /VCəC/
F1 334 340
F2 1456 1356

Examples

Table 2: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Northern Standard Dutch /ə/
wordgroup phonological status soundfile waveform/spectogram
met je lepel in de juswith your spoon in the juice lexical
[click image to enlarge]
te beraden over de zorgwekkende situatiethey deliberate about the worrisome situation lexical suffix
[click image to enlarge]
er was niet voldoende werk in Marokkothere was not enough work in Morocco epenthetic
[click image to enlarge]

Table 3: Soundfiles, waveforms and spectrograms of the above sound files, with indications of the relevant acoustic parameters of Southern Standard Dutch /ə/
wordgroup phonological status soundfile waveform/spectogram
met een gouden lepel in de mondwith a golden spoon in the mouth lexical
[click image to enlarge]
ben me daarover aan het beradenI'm deliberating upon it lexical suffix
[click image to enlarge]
(...) terug op het werk dan nog(...) back at work then still epenthetic
[click image to enlarge]

The range of variation in midpoint F1/F2 values for schwa in open syllables (Van Bergem 1994).

Figure 8: Plot of F1 versus F2 (averaged over speakers) measured at the vowel centre for all schwas in open test syllables C1əC2V. The average F1 and F2 of 7 Dutch monophthongs, pronounced by the three speakers in the null context /h-t/, have been added for reference only (Van Bergem 1994).

[click image to enlarge]

[+] Phonological analysis of /ə/

Features
A possible feature specification of  /ə/ is -high, -low, (+)tense, -round, -back. (The only reason to award a specification +tense is because [ə] behaves at least partly as an A-class vowel.)

Status of /ə/ as A-/B-class vowel
/ə/ can be seen either as a B-class vowel or as an A-class vowel. Its extreme shortness can be taken as an indication that it is a B-class vowel. However, the fact that it can occur at the end of a syllable ( mode[modə]fashion) but not before two non-coronal consonants suggests that it is phonotactically an A-class vowel. As to the phonotactics, occurrence before obstruents seems more limited than before sonorants (Van Oostendorp 2000). Another interesting restriction on the distribution is that schwa seems to avoid complex onsets ( (Kager and Zonneveld 1986), Van Oostendorp 2000), except in loanwords such as oeuvre[œːwrə]oeuvre. At the same time, schwa also does not occur without an onset except in the neuter determiner and pronoun het[ət]it (in the Netherlands; in Flanders this word often has the shape hət instead) and the pronominal adverb er[ər]there.

Relation to stress
/ə/ never has word stress in Dutch. Underlying schwa tends to put stress on the previous position; words ending in schwa have stress on the penultimate syllable significantly more often than words ending in any other vowel. Furthermore, unstressed vowels can optionally get reduced to schwa, although such reduction is not obligatory in the way it is in English. Rather, it is bound to style: the more informal a register is, the more likely unstressed vowels are to be reduced. The exception is /e/, which seems to reduce very easily also in more formal registers.

Schwa epenthesis
Many varieties of Dutch epenthesize schwa in coda clusters of which the second consonant is not a coronal obstruent, such as werk[wɛrək]work or helm[hɛləm]helmet.

References:
  • Bergem, Dick R. van1994A model of coarticulatory effects on the schwaSpeech Communication14143-162
  • Bergem, Dick R. van1994A model of coarticulatory effects on the schwaSpeech Communication14143-162
  • Bergem, Dick R. van1994A model of coarticulatory effects on the schwaSpeech Communication14143-162
  • Bergem, Dick R. van1994A model of coarticulatory effects on the schwaSpeech Communication14143-162
  • Collins, B. & Mees, I2003The Phonetics of English and DutchLeidenE.J. Brill
  • Eijkman, L.P.H1937Phonetiek van het NederlandsHaarlemDe Erven F. Bohn N.V.
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos1992DutchJournal of the International Phonetic Association2245-47
  • Kager, René & Zonneveld, Wim1986Schwa, Syllables and Extrametricality in DutchThe Linguistic Review5197-221
  • Koopmans-van Beinum, Florina J1994What's in a schwa?Phonetica5168-79
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
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