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In a sister site I saw the word sir written in IPA as /sər/ and not /sɜ:r/ as it was in my OALD. So I looked it up at Oxford Dictionary on-line and sure enough, they had it as /sər/. The same at MW.

The same pronunciation is given for words like purr and bird where my OALD shows /ɜ:r/

I thought the schwa was used to indicate a reduced vowel in an unstressed syllable.

I am also seeing the same in the word cut. Although my 30 year-old copy of OALD shows /kʌt/, I am seeing /kət/ in MW.

Is schwa now being used to indicate a vowel sound in a single syllable word? When did this change?

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First of all, let's figure out the case of the word sir. According to Oxford Learners' Dictionary, both /sɜːr/ and /sər/ are correct pronunciations of the word. I have seen both pronunciation in OLD only (However I didn't look in a lot of dictionaries).

Next, keep in mind that, according to some native speakers, /ɜ:/ and /ə/ sound similar, except that (according to other speakers) /ɜ:/ is elongated. /ɜ:/ occurs before the consonant r only. It makes sense why dictionaries would choose to just use a schwa instead.

For the example of cut, this is a practice that infuriates me a lot, since Cut doesn't sound at all like the first syllable in a word like Qatar. However, according to my Accent Reduction teacher, /ʌ/ is just a stressed schwa, and that's why you see some dictionaries using a schwa instead. I don't understand why some dictionaries practice this. A wedge might be a stressed schwa, but at least for me they don't sound alike.

My advice: Merriam-Webster and the normal Oxford dictionary are designed for native speakers in mind. I'd recommend, as an ESL speaker, to use Learner's Dictionary (By Merriam Webster) and Oxford Learner's Dictionary. I assume that normal dictionaries don't pay much attention to transcription as they'd expect people to just hear the word being spoken rather than read the actual transcript. A native speaker can distinguish between all the different phonemes in his language, making it ideal to just listen instead of reading.

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  • Part of the confusion is arising out of the different pronunciation schemes used by different dictionaries. Since MW does not use IPA, I prefer to rely on OALD or Cambridge. Your teacher is correct in saying that /ʌ/ is longer than /ə/, but calling it a stressed schwa is confusing the issue IMHO. – Cascabel Apr 15 '16 at 7:25
  • One piece of evidence that /ʌ/ has been identified as the stressed counterpart of /ə/ in American English is the formation of new strong (i.e. stressed) forms of the words of, what, and was that have /ʌ/ instead of /ɑ/. Also, stressed were has /ɝ/ instead of /e˞/. These pronunciations seem to be derived from the unstressed forms of these words which have /ə/ and /ɚ/. – sumelic Apr 15 '16 at 18:11
  • @sumelic What I am trying to wrap my head around here is how this affects accent neutralization. When I was coaching accent we never taught /ə/ until after teaching all other vowels using minimal pairs, which of course were single-syllable words. It wasn't until we got to 2 and 3 syllable words that we discussed the schwa. Later we carried the topic over to word stress in sentence prosody. Are accent coaches now teaching /ə/ before other vowels? – Cascabel Apr 15 '16 at 18:49
  • My teacher asked me if I was familiar with the IPA, and I said yes. We then reviewed them. I noticed the abscense of the wedge in the vowels list so I asked him why, and he replied that it is an unnecessary hassle as it is just a stressed schwa. – Cyclone Apr 17 '16 at 0:13
  • I can't condone this answer (despite the fact that it says some useful things). MW is pants for pronunciation. :( – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 8 '16 at 20:09
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I've no idea when the change that you ask about occurred. The definition below from the OED has not been updated since 1982, indicating that back then it did not consider the schwa to be exclusively reserved for unstressed syllables.

A Dictionary of Psychology (4th edition, Oxford U Press) says:

The neutral and central mid vowel...that occurs in the words the and fern, at the beginning of about, and at the end of sofa, and the symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that represents it, namely an inverted e. Statistically, it is the most frequently occurring English vowel (over ten per cent of all vowel sounds), yet it has no corresponding single letter in the standard alphabet. See also central vowel, formant, mid vowel. [From Hebrew shewa a mark indicating the absence of a vowel sound][my emphasis in bold]

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines schwa as

The central vowel sound /ə/ , typically occurring in weakly stressed syllables, as in the final syllable of ‘sofa’ and the first syllable of ‘along’; = sheva n. 2. Occas., the symbol of an inverted ‘e’ used to represent this sound.

It gives a schwa in the pronunciation of such single syllable words as sir, purr, bird and the stressed syllable of birdbath.

The aptly named Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics says

The mid-central vowel of e.g. the second syllable of matter: in phonetic notation [ə] ([matə]). Also spelled ‘shwa’.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4 ed.):

/ʃwɑː/ (shwah). In the phrase ‘a moment ago’ in unemphatic BrE speech, the two unstressed vowels in italics are pronounced identically. The technical name for this sound is schwa, and its symbol is /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Not only letter a can be pronounced /ə/ : the italicized letters in the following show it represented by other written vowels: number, the, obey, commit, success, picture. The fact that letters a, e, o, and u can all be pronounced as a schwa explains many widespread spelling mistakes, such as *relevent.

I'll add that's it's too bad the sound of schwa is not also schwa.

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  • Both OALD and Cambridge show sir, purr, and bird with /ɜ:r/. I'm not sure why these other dictionaries are using a /ə/. In addition, the /:/ in /ɜ:r/ indicate a longer sound, which is counter-indicated by a schwa. It just doesn't seem consistent. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sir – Cascabel Apr 15 '16 at 0:53
  • Yeah I hear that about the 'long schwa'... I dunno why the differences displayed in dictionaries. I don't put a whole lot of technical stock in the online dictionaries (except the OED, which I reference through my library). – Alan Carmack Apr 15 '16 at 2:21
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Although for someone learning English, prescription is pedagogically appropriate (tell them what they should do) I remind everyone that a dictionary's PURPOSE is to describe NOT to prescribe. (It says how things are, NOT how they should be). Language (pronunciation, usage, grammar, and meaning) all vary by location and change over time (as well as differing by generation of the speaker) as we all know. Dialect matters. Oxford, England is not Springfield Massachusetts. (although I didn't remember that Encyclopedia Britannica owned MW). From Wikipedia I also note:The Merriam-Webster company once used a unique set of phonetic symbols in their dictionaries—intended to help people from different parts of the United States learn how to pronounce words the same way as others who spoke with the same accent or dialect did. Unicode accommodated IPA symbols, but did not specify room for Merriam-Webster phonetics.[So MW had to revise their on-line material...]

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  • Welcome to ELL and thank you for interesting observations. The question is "Is schwa now being used to indicate a vowel sound in a single syllable word? When did this change?" A direct answer, in addition to your observations, might be of even greater value to another searcher. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 12 '16 at 23:45

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