schwa is not one sound but many

Barnhart barnhart at HIGHLANDS.COM
Sun May 25 11:20:19 UTC 2008

You've got it topsy-turvy.  The symbol schwa stands for the sound
represented by many letters.  A glance at the pronunciation key of any of
the Thorndike-Barnhart school dictionaries shows this very clearly.

"[schwa] represents _a_ in _about_, _e_ in _taken_, _i_ in _pencil_, _o_
in _lemon_, _u_ in _circus_".

Schwa was introduced in American dictionaries by Clarence  Barnhart in an
effort to get away from the very complicated system in the Century
Dictionary.  That system was hopelessly complicated by many diacritical
marks.  From my perspective (having studied linguistics), dictionaries or
other sources that use respelling to represent pronunciation that eschew
schwa are not linguistic.  That is they are quite anachronistic and out of
touch with modern linguistics.

Actually, the representation of many sounds, such as the letter _t_ to
take one example, by a single letter is not correct as Kenneth Pike (as I
recall) pointed out.

David Barnhart
barnhart at

The American Dialect Society -

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