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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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Including Smiley Emojis in Your Work Emails Could Make You Look Incompetent
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If you’re looking to give your dry work emails some personality, sprinkling in emojis may not be the smartest strategy. As Mashable reports, smiley emojis in professional correspondences rarely convey the sentiments of warmth that were intended. But they do make the sender come across as incompetent, according to new research.

For their paper titled "The Dark Side of a Smiley," researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel looked at 549 subjects from 29 countries. After reading emails related to professional matters, participants were asked to judge the "competence and warmth" of the anonymous sender.

Emails that featured a smiley face were found to have a "negative effect on the perception of competence." That anti-emoji bias led readers to view the actual content of those emails as less focused and less detailed than the messages that didn’t include emojis.

Previous research has shown that sending emojis to people you’re not 100 percent comfortable with is always a gamble. That’s because unlike words or facial expressions, which are usually clear in their meanings, the pictographs we shoot back and forth with our phones tend to be ambiguous. One study published last year shows that the same emoji can be interpreted as either positive or negative, depending on the smartphone platform on which it appears.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to communicate effectively without leaning on emojis to make you look human. Here are some etiquette tips for making your work emails sound clear and competent.

[h/t Mashable]

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9 Sweet Old Words for Bitter Tastes and Taunts
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Whether you’re enjoying the sharp taste of an IPA or disliking some nasty words from a colleague, it’s hard not to talk about bitterness. But we could all use a few new—or old—terms for this all-too-common concept. So let’s dig into the history of English to find a few words fit to describe barbs and rhubarbs.

1. STOMACHOUS

Have you ever spoken with bile and gall? If so, you’ll understand why stomachous is also a word describing bitterness, especially bitter words and feelings. This is an angry word to describe spiteful outbursts that come when you’ve had a bellyful of something. In The Faerie Queen, Edmond Spencer used the term, describing those who, “With sterne lookes, and stomachous disdaine, Gaue signes of grudge and discontentment vaine." You can also say someone is “stomachously angry,” a level of anger requiring a handful of antacids.

2. WORMWOOD

Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is the patron plant of bitterness, which has made wormwood synonymous with the concept. Since at least the 1500s, that has included wormwood being used as an adjective. Shakespeare used the term in this way: “Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame ... Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast.” George Parsons Lathrop reinforced this meaning in 1895 via the bitterness of regret, describing “the wormwood memories of wrongs in the past.” Unsurprisingly, some beers are brewed with wormwood to add bitterness, like Storm Wormwood IPA.

3. BRINISH

The earliest uses of brinish are waterlogged, referring to saltiness of the sea. The term then shifted to tears and then more general bitterness. Samuel Hieron used it in his 1620 book Works: “These brinish inuectiues are vnsauory” [sic]. Nothing can ruin your day quite like brinish invective.

4. CRABBED

Crabby is a popular word for moods that are, shall we say, not reminiscent of puppies and rainbows. Crabbed has likewise been used to describe people in ways that aren’t flattering to the crab community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological note is amusing: “The primary reference was to the crooked or wayward gait of the crustacean, and the contradictory, perverse, and fractious disposition which this expressed.” This led to a variety of meanings running the gamut from perverse to combative to irritable—so bitter fits right in. Since the 1400s, crabbed has sometimes referred to tastes and other things that are closer to a triple IPA than a chocolate cookie. OED examples of “crabbed supper” and “crabbed entertainment” both sound displeasing to the stomach.

5. ABSINTHIAN

This word, found in English since the 1600s, is mainly a literary term suggesting wormwood in its early uses; later, it started applying to the green alcohol that is bitter and often illegal. A 1635 couplet from poet Thomas Randolph sounds like sound dietary advice: “Best Physique then, when gall with sugar meets, Tempring Absinthian bitternesse with sweets.” A later use, from 1882 by poet Egbert Martin, makes a more spiritual recommendation: “Prayer can empty life's absinthian gall, Rest and peace and quiet wait its call.”

6. RODENT

Now here’s a bizarre, and rare, twist on a common word. Though we’re most familiar with rodents as the nasty rats digging through your garbage and the adorable hamsters spinning in a wheel, this term has occasionally been an adjective. Though later uses apply to corrosiveness and literal rodents, the earliest known example refers to bitterness. A medical example from 1633, referring to the bodily humors, shows how this odd term was used: “They offend in quality, being too hot, or too cold, or too sharp, and rodent.”

7. NIPPIT

The first uses of nippit, found in the 1500s, refer to scarcity, which may be because this is a variation of nipped. In the 1800s, the term spread to miserliness and narrow-mindedness, and from there to more general bitterness. OED examples describe “nippit words” and people who are “mean or nippit.”

8. SNELL

This marvelous word first referred to physical and mental quickness. A “snell remark” showed a quick wit. But that keenness spread to a different sort of sharpness: the severity or crispness of bitter weather. An 1822 use from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine uses this sense: “The wintry air is snell and keen.”

9. TETRICAL

The Latinate term for bitterness and harshness of various sorts appears in José Francisco de Isla's 1772 book The History of the Famous Preacher Friar Gerund de Campazas, describing some non-sweet folks: "Some so tetrical, so cross-grained, and of so corrupt a taste." A similar meaning is shared by the also-rare terms tetric, tetricity, tetricious, and tetritude. Thankfully, there is no relation to the sweet game of Tetris.

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