Sunday, February 01, 2009

Invasion of the Schwa

A tardy Saturday post to be sure but I'm confident I can be forgiven because I did get a few up during the week. Oo-er Missus.

The subject of today's little chat is the creeping schwa. Now, if you don't know what a schwa is, it's basically a kind of sixth vowel. It's described in grammar books as 'an unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in any language, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel. Such vowels are often transcribed with the symbol ə, regardless of their actual phonetic value.' All of which means that it's a short sound - usually a kind of 'uh' - that replaces a more traditional stressed vowel sound. For example, here are some (reasonably) common words where the schwa appears:

The 'a' in about
The 'e' in taken
The 'i' in pencil
The 'o' in eloquent
The 'u' in supply
The 'y' in sibyl

The most common place to find a schwa is in the words 'a' and 'the'. And in recent years, it seems to me that the naughty schwa has been silently and stealthily moving in on the other vowels and beating them into submission.

When I was at school back in the late sixties and 1970s, we were always taught* that 'a' and 'the' changed depending upon the first letter of the word following. If the word 'a' was follwed by a word beginning with a vowel, you'd replace it with 'an'. So you'd say 'an apple' rather than the clumsy 'a apple' or 'ə apple'.

When it came to the word 'the', we were told that if the next word started with a vowel, you should pronounce 'the' as 'thee'. This had the effect of almost adding a 'Y' sound between the words so that 'the Earth' was pronounced like 'thee yerth' and allowed the two vowels to slide gracefully into each other. Using a schwa meant that you had an ugly glottal stop in the middle and it sounded like 'thuh earth'. Schwas were only used before consonants like 'thə tree' or 'thə sausage'.

What I find now is that the schwa is starting to become standard for all uses of the word 'the'. Even posh TV presenters like Ben Fogle, who've obviously had a good education (no one speaks that plummily without some elocution) universally use the schwa version of 'the'. It certainly doesn't cause me to lose any sleep ... but it does make the language sound a little more gutteral and grunty. And it's such a lovely poetic language that I hate to see it uglified.

Just an observation. What do you chaps think?

*Because they did teach grammar and pronunciation back then in grammar schools - hence the name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with you! I was taught the same way when I was in school. Now, I am in my junior of college, majoring in Elementary Education. I have to teach the phonics element 'schwa' in both an analytic approach and a synthentic approach, tomorrow, and am trying to figure out the best way of going about introducing the concept. Ugh...I know that it's an important vowel sound to teach, but I don't see any easy way of going about doing it to where students will know the actual vowel that makes the schwa sound in any given word. Perhaps there isn't any certain strategy other than telling students that they should just memorize the spelling of such words. If anyone has any suggestions, I would be most appreciative!!!