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9 Fun Facts About the Schwa

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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.

2. It’s the most common vowel sound in English.

And this can make things very hard for English learners, because we don’t represent it in regular writing. You have to use clues about stress and syllable structure to figure out where to put it.

3. The word “schwa” comes from Hebrew.

In Hebrew writing, “shva” is a vowel diacritic that can be written under letters to indicate an ‘eh’ sound (which is not the same as our schwa). The term was first used in linguistics by 19th century Germany philologists, which is why we use the German spelling, "schwa."

4. The ǝ symbol was invented to show how people really talked.

The upside down e was first used as a symbol for the schwa sound by Johann Schmeller in his 1821 grammar of Bavarian German. Because he was describing the specific properties of a particular dialect, he needed a way to represent actual pronunciation.

5. Before people started calling it “schwa” in English (around 1895) it had a lot of nicknames.

It’s been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel.

6. English has a tendency to delete a syllable with a schwa.

What happened to the third syllable in the following words? Caramel (car-mel), separate (sep-rate), different (dif-rent), chocolate (choc-late), camera (cam-ra). They fell victim to a terrible disease called schwa syncope (or schwa deletion). Actually, it’s not so terrible, and it happens in lots of languages. A schwa syllable following the syllable that bears the main stress says, “well I’m not really needed here anyway” and skips town.

7. But English sometimes has a tendency to stick in extra schwa syllables.

In some dialects a schwa shows up to help bust up difficult consonant clusters. This process, called schwa epenthesis, can turn realtor into real-ǝ-tor, athlete into ath-ǝ-lete, nuclear into nuc-yǝ-ler, and film into fi-lǝm. It can also come in handy in drawing out words for dramatic effect, as in “cǝ-raaaaaa-zy!”

8. Schwa is so prevalent because English is a stress-timed language

Some languages are syllable-timed, like Spanish, where each syllable is roughly the same length, giving the impression of a steady “machine-gun” rhythm. English is a stress-timed language, meaning that the rhythmic impression is based on the regular timing of stress peaks, not syllables. If you want to speed up in Spanish, you shorten the length of all the syllables. If you want to speed up in English, you close the distance between stressed syllables. How? By greatly reducing the unstressed syllables. What vowel do unstressed syllables tend to get? Schwa. Here’s a good explanation of stress-timing with examples.

9. It’s the laziest sound there is.

Which is not a value judgment! I love schwa! But of all the sounds we use, it demands the least of us. All you have to do to make a schwa is start up the vocal cords. Other sounds require you to raise or lower the tongue, or move it forward or backward. They ask you to move your lips, or open your jaw. The schwa just is. Serene and undemanding. The vibration of air through the body to the outside world. The essence of speech itself.

If you like schwas, consider subscribing to Schwa Fire, a new digital publication about language for non-linguists. I have an article in the first installment (about a rescued trove of Yiddish recordings), and I hope you’ll support language journalism by checking out the entire issue!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]