schwa fire
The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech

Arika Okrent explains schwas on Lexicon Valley

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.


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

Great news, language lovers! Today, Schwa Fire was officially funded on Kickstarter!

There’s been a lot of buzz around this project for the last month, so you’ve probably heard of it by now. In any case, it’s a long-form magazine venture, akin to Sports Illustrated, but for linguistics, language, and communication. I can’t wait to see what it’ll bring us! I’ll be sure to tell you about neat things it brings us, the tumblinguistics community.

Schwa thing

I’ve pledged my $25 for the first three editions of Schwa Fire - a Kickstarter project to create a high-quality digital publication for people who are interested in language (and not necessarily linguists). Now I’ve added my dollars, I thought I’d also add my two cents.

There’s been some good online discussion of the Schwa Fire project. Articles have appeared on Language Log, All Things Linguistic and Fast Company. I think the Language Log article is particularly worth reading, as Schwa Fire project leader Michael Erard joins the discussion in the comments.

It’s taken me a couple of days to warm to the idea of Schwa Fire (pun entirely intended). I’ve been involved in a few discussions of late about the role of blogging in research and the lack of credit given to public education in academia. So these discussions have shaped my feelings.
There is so much great language writing on the internet (just take a look at some of the links on our website!), and Babel magazine is only just finding its feet (check out the next edition for an article by yours truly!) my first reaction was to ponder whether we needed another outlet. The internet is a wonderful place to allow people of a niche interest to come together, but I also wonder sometimes whether it would be better to also push ourselves out of our own bubble. If, as Erard has pitched, these are the kind of stories that would be on NPR, then why aren’t we aiming for NPR?

Having said that, anything that encourages language journalism is a good thing. Especially as the focus of the Kickstarter project is to raise money to pay contributors. Much of the best writing about language on the internet happens between people’s other jobs - be they academics, lexicographers, brand consultants or journalists. Giving people the space to pursue longer-format articles can only be a good thing. And at the end of the day, the more quality output there is to counteract the usual nonsense, the better. I’ll definitely keep subscribing at $2 an edition if the content is as promising as Erard indicates!
Accent Tag Nation
From Harvard to YouTube: the birth of accent tagging and what it's teaching linguists.

An article from Schwa Fire about the YouTube accent tag, the linguistic studies where the words used in the accent challenge come from, and how linguists and media are now using the accent tag videos for further linguistic analysis. Excerpt:  

Chicago’s National Public Radio station WBEZ did a program about the Chicago accent, accompanied by a blog post. The producers were white, and the program’s focus was almost exclusively on how white Chicagoans use vowels differently from people in other parts of the country (many Chicagoans pronounce the word jockey just like Jackie, for instance). The program went on to say that African Americans in Chicago don’t use these vowels, and further, it claimed that they have an alternate set of vowels that are invariable, no matter what city they live in. “AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas,” WBEZ said. “Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc. So while an African-American Chicagoan might not sound like a white Chicagoan, he or she may sound a whole lot like an African-American Washingtonian.”

What happened next depended in large part on YouTube’s Accent Tag phenomenon. WBEZ ended up doing a second, mea culpa, program dedicated to African-American English and recognizing that African-American English pronunciation varies from city to city.

The new show was created after the radio station was contacted by Amanda Hope, who was indignant about the first program. She left a comment on WBEZ’s blog: “I’m an African-American woman who was born and raised on Chicago’s Southside but I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. I’ve also spent a significant amount of time in the South. Let me be the first to tell you that AAE has a variety of accents. In fact, Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD are about a 45-minute car drive away from one another and there is a stark contrast between the accents of blacks from Baltimore and the accents of blacks from DC. To take my point even further, Black Chicagoans make fun of the accent of Black St. Louis residents all the time because of their “errrrrr” sound. I’m so tired of articles and studies suggesting that African Americans are comprised of some homogenous group.”

When WBEZ contacted Hope, she buttressed her argument by pointing the radio people to Accent Tag videos by blacks across the country, including Chicago. The videos impressed the producers, and the station’s subsequent “Chicago blaccent” show gave African-American taggers a day in the elite-media sun. WBEZ staff posted black tagger videos, and searched out some of the Chicago creators for lengthy interviews about their perceptions of regional differences in African-American English.

(Read the rest.)
The Language of Poetry

I wrote about the language of poetry for Schwa Fire. Specifically, about how the rhythmic system of different languages influences what kinds of rhythms are found in their poetry, such as iambic pentameter, haiku, and the alexandrine, in English, Japanese, and French, respectively. 

People like to talk about “untranslatable” words, but what they generally mean is something that’s a word in one language but takes a phrase or two to say in another. Poetry, on the other hand, because it involves both form and meaning, is something that’s actually not completely translatable.

For a simple example, “you” and “blue” rhyme in English, but they don’t in many other languages. So let’s say you want to translate the poem “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And I love you” into another language. It’s not a problem finding words for “roses”, “red”, “sugar”, “love”, and so on in most languages. And even if a language doesn’t have a word for roses because they don’t grow in that area, you can probably find another flower that will do the trick.

For example, let’s translate Roses Are Red into French, just because it’s my most fluent second language: “Les roses sont rouges / Les violets sont bleus / Le sucre est doux / Et je t'aime”. The words are really easy to translate, owing to lots of contact and similar climates where these two languages are spoken, although I did have to make a judgement call about whether to translate “sweet” as “doux”, which also means “soft, mellow, warm” or “sucré”, which is more like “sugary”. “Doux” seemed a bit more romantic, while sucre/sucré seemed like a weird doubling, so I went with the first one. 

But the poem doesn’t have the same resonance in French, and it’s not because French speakers are unfamiliar with flowers or sugar or even because of the judgement call I made about “sweet”: for one thing, while “blue” and “you” rhyme in English, “bleus” and “t'aime” don’t rhyme in French. We’ve also got a partial rhyme where we don’t want one between lines one and three: “rouges” and “doux” have the same vowel sound, which isn’t true for “red” and “sweet” in English.

But a more subtle problem is that the rhythm is off: for one thing, the last line is weirdly shorter than the other three in French but not in English, just because “je t'aime” happens to be two syllables while “I love you” is three. There’s also a more subtle rhythmic difference between English and French, which is what I get into in the Schwa Fire article. 

Many Schwa Fire articles are only available via subscription, but this one is free, at least for now, so you should go check it out

(Correction: Fixed gender agreement of “sucre”. Knew I should’ve looked it up. Thanks!)
Becoming a Grammar Jedi
What happens to an avowed descriptivist when he's asked to join the select group that sets standards for American English usage?

An interesting article from Robert Lane Greene at Schwa Fire about how the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage notes are constructed. Excerpt: 

In a highly-competitive dictionary market, AHD sought to distinguish itself (and righting perceived language wrongs) by assembling a group of worthies who would vote each year on controversial usages. The votes are tallied and are used to inform small usage notes next to the words in question. What the reader of AHD gets is uniquely nuanced; instead of licensing or banning a usage—say “He hopes to grow the company,” which gives some people (including me) hives—readers are told that 73% of the usage panel disapprove. It’s a good way to avoid making black-or-white pronouncements about the language, because some writers prefer—and some assignments call for—a conservative style, others for a more contemporary one. AHD’s usage notes show how far along an acceptance curve a given usage has moved. […]

There was just one problem. Philosophically, I am mostly a “descriptivist” in the famous language wars. That means I’m convinced that “rules” about the language must be based in actual usage, something that shifts over time. Syntactic structures change, and grammarians deal with it; words’ meanings change, and lexicographers deal with that. Given those beliefs, it suddenly felt like a contradiction to join a panel the entire existence of which was organized around telling people what to do with their language. Up until now, I had thought of myself as an advocate of a bottom-up approach to standards for the language, of conventions for aspiring writers to learn. Now I was going to side with the more-enlightened-than-thou crowd of teachers, parents, and pundits who drill inflexible rules into their charges, no matter what the youngsters’ own feel for the language tells them.

But what if—a small knot formed in my throat—I wasn’t sure about the rules myself?

(Read the rest.)
Who Can Save Ayapaneco?

An article from Schwa Fire  (although they normally charge for subscriptions, this one is free!) on how media and especially a new Vodafone commercial have distorted what’s really going on among speakers of Ayapaneco: 

Ayapaneco is a dying Mexican language with only two living speakers left…who refuse to speak to each other. Thanks to the stubbornness of two bitter old men—don Manuel and don Isidro (who’s nicknamed Chilo)—a language will be lost forever.

This story has something so compelling, so primordial, that it keeps getting repeated—in prime time news broadcasts and public radio broadcasts, on websites, and in magazines around the globe—even though it’s entirely untrue. Because of my expertise in the languages and communities of the area, every month I receive emails from curious journalists, documentary filmmakers, and linguistics majors eager to capture the Manuel-versus-Isidro conflict in more detail. I try to tell them the real story of Ayapaneco. But the fictional version continues to circulate.

Also some important points on what’s actually important in “saving” a language: 

The best of these initiatives empower speakers of endangered languages by equipping them with the training and technology needed to document and revitalize their own linguistic heritage, as they see fit. If implemented correctly, these projects can be sustained with minimal outside assistance, long after the experts have left. A real contribution by Vodafone would have been to design the Viva Ayapaneco website to serve the needs of actual Ayapa residents, using its impressive design elements to make language learning fun and exciting for the children of Ayapa, not to mention children in other nearby endangered language communities such as Oluta.

Very much worth reading the whole thing
Why Does English Use "Iambic Pentameter" and Other Greek Poetic Terms?

I’m on Lexicon Valley talking about the history of metrical terms and some of the differences between English and Latin/Ancient Greek. 

If you paid any attention at all in high school English, you probably remember iambic pentameter, most likely from reading Shakespeare, and perhaps even other meters like trochaic tetrameter (the meter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, among other things). And if you had an English teacher who was especially instructive in etymology, you may have learned that iambic pentameter takes its name from several Greek roots that translate roughly as “five metrical feet.”

But wait. Greek and English meter don’t work in the same way, so how did we come to use Greek poetic terminology to describe English verse? (Read the rest.)

I glossed over the ways that Latin poetry actually differs somewhat from Ancient Greek poetry, but if you’re looking for more, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Also, I couldn’t fit it in the article, but while writing it I discovered that apparently Hey Diddle Diddle used to be far longer and had quite a different meter. (Edit: apparently this version is actually newer and by JRR Tolkein. It’s still great though.) Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading the full thing aloud: 

Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
The guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor.

With a ping and a pang the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.

I also found this delightful example of tap-dancing to iambic pentameter in the first 30 seconds of this clip from Love’s Labours Lost

I’ve been writing about poetry a lot lately: there's trochaic tetrameter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s Hey Diddle Diddle in ASL, and I have an upcoming puzzle in Schwa Fire. The full solution will be up next week for subscribers, but in the meantime you can try to answer it yourself to win a subscription. (Or get a subscription, if you can: Schwa Fire is pretty cool, and subscribing lets them pay contributors like me!)
The first issue of Schwa Fire is out!

Schwa Fire, the digital magazine about language which you may recall from their Kickstarter last year, has come out with their first issue.  

From the announcement email: 

In this inaugural issue, we define — and defend — “language journalism.” There’s an inspirational tale about what it took for recordings of Yiddish to survive, and a warning about the dangerous path of nostalgia for American dialects. We also learn about the language of love (which, in this case, is Danish.) PLUS: there’s a word puzzle to solve. 

Some familiar authors in this first issue including Arika Okrent and Robert Lane Greene. The “first season” will contain three issues coming out every two months (that’s May, July, and September), and after that they’ll move to a monthly schedule. 

I’ve got a subscription because I backed it on Kickstarter in November, but some of the articles are available for free, and the others are available for a small fee which goes to paying for future issues and contributors. You can also be entered to win a free subscription if you solve this puzzle