by more people on the planet than any other tongue except Chinese, English
is often described as “the international language”, with those who require
a second language invariably choosing (or being compelled) to learn it
rather than any other. There are cultural, industrial and political
reasons for English language globalism which are obvious and unnecessary
for me to enumerate here.
I ask you to spare a thought for what’s in store for all
those millions who do take on English as their second
anyone starting out to learn English in such circumstances there are
without doubt mixed blessings in the offing. With effort, to be sure, its
vocabulary can be memorised and its grammar — well the rules for that,
such as there are, verge on the uncomplicated.
answer to that question is as straightforward as English pronunciation
isn’t. Indeed, let the foreign student be warned at the outset: the
waywardness of English pronunciation in relation to its spelling will in
next to no time become unto you a thrice-accursed abomination.
back as Issue 6 (1998 March), in our first Where Three Ways Meet
column, Bikwil was alluding to this contrariness. I quote from that
column the example showing the nine ways “ough” can be pronounced:
rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets
of Scarborough. After falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.
well-known instance of the difficulties the newcomer to English encounters
is the “sh” sound, which is the reverse problem to the
single-spelling/multiple-sound mysteries of “ough”.
to Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, “sh” has fourteen different
spellings, some of which occur in the words anxious, fission,
fuchsia, nation and ocean.
well, I’m not surprised that the word is unfamiliar to you. Schwa
(pronounced “shwah”) is a term drawn from Hebrew grammar (“sheva”) that
was originally a sign written under a consonant to indicate the absence of
a following vowel sound. Later it became used also to represent a neutral
vowel, and that’s the function it has today in linguistics generally.
English it’s the first vowel sound in the word along or the vowel
sound that ends the word sofa. Often shown in simplified
pronunciation guides as “uh”, it is represented in the International
Phonetic Alphabet by the symbol of an upside down “e” —
a look at this list put together by English Plus+, an American grammar
tutoring firm I found on the Internet:
the underlined vowels is a schwa and has virtually the same pronunciation,
but for the unwary newcomer to English the spelling gives little
indication of the appalling truth.
not claiming that English is the only language boasting a schwa. In point
of fact, I’ve heard rumours that languages as dissimilar as Dutch, Danish,
Russian, Hindi, Turkish and Berber have such a vowel. But I’ll bet that
they treat it with care and cherish it quietly, in a reliable manner, and
keep it in its place. French, German, Italian and Spanish do so: remember
the “e mute” from high school French?
on the other hand, wants to swank about and paint the town red with it.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it” is the motto by which English lives.
triumphalist swagger represent slovenliness on the part of today’s English
but it would be a mistake is assume that the expansionism of the British
Empire in the 19th century and the even more pervading 20th century clout
of America were all it took for the power of schwa to have its lax way
with the English language. Sure, they helped, but the widespread use of
schwa in English isn’t some recent aberration of the modern world at all.
contrary, it is a very old feature of the language, dating back to about
the beginning of the 14th century. By then English was already a spicy mix
of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, and as well as a rapidly growing
vocabulary several other crucial transformations were taking place.
change was a tendency to reduce any short vowel in an unstressed syllable
to a common indeterminate vowel. To wit, schwa. But English didn’t stop
there. Oh no. Once its vowels had lost their individuality, it seemed no
time before English wanted to drop the word inflections it had inherited
from German and French. In fact, the prevalence of schwa is said by
language historians to have directly contributed to this change.
some examples of the very few word inflections which remain in modern
have separate endings in the possessive case ("'s" and "s'") and the
plural number ("s")
verbs have suffixes indicating
third person singular ("-s")
past tense ("-ed") and
present participle ("-ing")
heavily inflected parts of speech are pronouns ("he", "him", "his").
this movement to a relatively uninflected language was an inevitable
reliance on word order and prepositions to show the relationship between
the words in a sentence, instead of the positional flexibility that word
endings had previously allowed. The dual characteristics of fixed word
order/prepositions and hardly any word endings are the historical keys to
modern English’s “easy grammar”.
loss of inflection and word order flexibility has been compensated for in
modern English by a elasticity in parts of speech usage. Thus nouns and
verbs once distinguished by their inflections can be interchanged (e.g.
run, place, gun, face), and all nouns may be used
come back to schwa . . .
makes matters worse for our unsuspecting student is that some words can be
pronounced with a schwa one minute and without it the next, i.e. with a
“real” vowel. Typically this is accompanied by a change in the syllable
from unaccented to accented. For instance,
as a verb has a schwa in the first syllable, and the accent on the second,
as a noun has a short "e" [ε]
in the accented first syllable
case can be found in the different pronunciations of the word present,
and no doubt you can think of other examples.
schwa is omnipresent in English, it is not without its opponents.
example, novice public speakers are sometimes advised by diction
consultants to give extra weight to unstressed syllables. This they would
do with the first syllable of police, say, or that of tomato.
Now and then I’ve heard this sort of thing on the radio, and if the
announcer isn’t careful it starts to sound affected.
the best efforts of elocutionists, however, schwa can’t stay quiet for
long, and two ways English takes advantage of it in humorous vein are to
found in puns and doggerel rhymes.
remind you of a couple of classic puns from our own Quintessential
Quirky Quotes pages where schwa rears its democratic little head with
no trace of qualm or misgiving.
foremost is Dorothy Parker’s
unforgettable pun on the word horticulture. It’s in Issue 3
(September 1997). Another great schwa pun is the one by
Denis Norden in Issue 18
(March 2000), in which he likens a hi-hat to the poetry of Mallarmé.
Bikwil also has some appalling rhymes that hinge on schwa’s
Percy’s Off-key in the Kitchen in Issue 4 (November 1997):
a bent tablespoon
be just a little bit awkward.
hit the thing,
you know it won’t ring
well as a new tuning fork would?
later, in Issue 10, in our Wagnerian edition of
Down Limerick Lane,
NonesuCH and our editor were again exploiting schwa in no uncertain terms.
What language but English would dare allow us to rhyme words like
Wagner and bargainer, or Matilda, builder,
Brünnhilde, and gilder . . . plus even more outlandish
(January 2000) also has some rhymes that rely on schwa for their courage.
Have a look at Henri Dandin’s ditty
Les Musiques Imbéciles.
may be over 700 years old, but English schwa is alive and kicking and, by
the looks of it, here to stay globally.
warn our overseas students, though.