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.
Schwas are very common in English (although they’re surprisingly difficult to play in IPA Scrabble, because they’re far more common in polysyllabic words). They’re less common in other languages, and are one of the things that contribute to non-native accents in both directions: English speakers tend to reduce vowels to schwa even when it’s unwarranted, and speakers of many other languages tend to pronounce too many full vowels.
Because of how common and distinctively-shaped schwa is, it (along with wugs) have become a ubiquitous icon for linguistics. For example, there’s a schwa necklace, dozens of schwa mugs and t-shirts, and of course the publication Schwa Fire.
if anyone tries to tell you that linguistics isn’t useful or practical, remember that one time I figured out my roommate’s crush by observing that she was about to produce a velar plosive when she stopped herself from saying his name
Oronyms are words or phrases with similar pronunciations but different spellings and vastly different meanings.
Oronyms are a great basis for punning and a huge problem for speech recognition by computers, and even people (like in noisy environments).
Here’s one of the examples Linguistics Girl gives:
a nice He took a nice cold shower after his date.
an ice He took an ice cold shower after his date.
These two sentences don’t have a huge difference in meaning — both involve taking a cold shower — but this is an uncommon coincidence. More often, the pair of oronyms have very different meanings. One of the most famous examples for speech recognition is the following:
recognize speech It is very difficulty to recognize speech.
wreck a nice beach It is very difficult to wreck a nice beach.
This example demonstrates, too, how the phonology of English contributes to the oronymic qualities of the phrase. For instance, the [g] is recognize is rarely pronounced clearly in casual speech. Additionally, the [sp] sequence in speech doesn’t sound like [s]+[p], because English speakers pronounce stops like [p] without aspiration after [s] (which makes them sound like [b], the voiced and unaspirated counterpart). These two characteristics of English pronunciation lead recognize and wreck a nice to sound similar. Then, the s from speech is incorporated into nice, which leads to the remainder of the word sounding a lot like beach.
Just looking at the acoustic patterns, as computers would, makes it very difficult to tell the difference between oronyms. So how do humans do it? Well, that’s one of the interesting questions in speech perception: what tools besides the acoustic input do we use to parse the speech stream? Some of the answers linguists have found include the frequency of the words or lexical items (how often or how likely they are to occur), the part of speech that is expected next (where in the sentence you are), and the discourse environment (e.g., you don’t expect to be talking about wrecking beaches in a class on computer speech recognition).
Beatboxing doesn’t sound a lot like language and, well, that’s sort of the point. It’s supposed to be an a cappella version of the percussion section, not a complementary set of lyrics. However, since the human vocal tract—including the palate, tongue, teeth, and other mouthparts—is used for both beatboxing and speaking, linguists at the University of Southern California wondered to what extent beatboxers draw on actual speech sounds.
To find out, they put a professional beatboxer in a real-time MRI machine. The resulting cross-sections of the beatboxer’s mouth and throat show a range of sounds, all linguistic, but only some of which are found in the beatboxer’s native language (in this case, both English and Spanish).
Several video demonstrations at the link, but I wanted to add this more technical chart from Proctor et al with IPA equivalents to many common beatboxing sounds. I hope no one is reading this in public, because you should probably spend the next few minutes trying them all.
Something that had always troubled me is the phonological likeness that French bears with Germanic languages. Putting aside English, the Germanic languages I am referring to are German, Dutch and the Scandinavian triad; Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.
Of course I am not saying that French sounds exactly the same as these languages nor do they sound 100% similar to each other but there are a couple of phonetic features that are to be found across these aforementioned tongues. Namely, I am talking about the front rounded vowels /ø œ y/ and the uvular R /ʁ/. These sounds are transcribed in diverse manners depending on the language:
What’s interesting is that French is one of the very few Latin languages that possess these front rounded vowels. The other ones are Franco-provençal and Lombard. The other great Romance languages such as Castillan, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian or Italian respect the Latin phonological heritage where no such sounds are to be found. How come then that French is standing out?
European languages with front rounded vowels. Orange is Lombard.
It seems that the answer lies in substrate languages that French came into contact with. Evidence shows that the [y] sound must been introduced to Proto-French via intense contact with the Gaulish language. At the time of the Roman domination in “Gallia”, a Celtic tribe named the Gauls was already settled in Northern France and Belgium. Though the Gaulish languages retains mysteries, researchers estimate that Gaulish possessed the [y] phoneme. Though irregular in Celtic languages, the phoneme also exists in Cornish (Cornish is part of the Insular Celtic branch while Gaulish was Continental). With intense contact between the two tongues, [y] jumped from one to the other. The sound seems to have undergone a slow decay as French evolved after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, when the Gallo-Roman met the Frankish tribes (of Germanic origins), they reintroduced the sound. Though on its way out, [y] was all the more accepted that it sounded “native” to Gallo-Romans. The main theory concerning the generation of Old French is that the Franks imposed much of their vocabulary and other mainly phonetic features on Gallo-Roman which fronted [u] to [y]. Other Romance languages did not experience this kind of influence with this intensity from Celtic and Germanic languages.
Regarding [ø œ] it is hard to see any Germanic influence for the emergence of these sounds. They seem to have arisen chiefly out of assimilation between a back rounded vowel [u] (or labio-velar approximant [w]) and a front unrounded one [e] or [ɛ]:
Assimilation is an unintentional vowel-harmonisation. Contrary to Turkish or Finnish where vowels constantly have to change to accommodate one another, assimilation just “happens” without warning. If you take [e] and [ɛ] and add lip-rounding, you get [ø œ]. Why did the process happen mainly in French ? Probably because under Frankish influence, stressed vowels diphthongised creating numerous [u] + Vowel sequences resulting in a large-scale assimilation of vowels.
As for the R, it is the other way around. French is apparently the instigator of the rhotic change that spread specifically over Germanic countries. I invite you to read this post about the French R.
If you want a more in-depth history of French phonology, here are two links:
retroflex starts with a retroflex sound fricative starts with a fricative sound sibilant starts with a sibilant sound plosive starts with a plosive sound bilabial starts with a bilabial sound lateral starts with a lateral sound consonant starts with a consonant voiced starts with a voiced sound nasal starts with a nasal sound rhotic starts with a rhotic sound
I saw this visualisation of the IPA consonant symbols located in the mouth reblogged elsewhere today. I’ve succeeded in locating both the designer and better quality images. Yipee! It seems to be part of an “Introduction to Phonetics” pack.
High, squeaky notes. Screeching soprano solos. Unintelligible opera divas. There are a slew of stereotypes for how soprano voices sound at the top of their range. Even exceptionally talented singers struggle to be understood when singing high notes. Is it just a matter of technique, or is there something else going on? As it turns out, soprano voices are limited more by physics than by skill, and here’s why:
Lauren Ackerman, who you might recognize as wuglife, is on Lexicon Valley talking about what happens to vowels at high pitches. It’s fascinating, contains cute animals, and I definitely learned things while I was editing it, so you should check it out.