Wedge and schwa

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Mon Mar 9 15:54:19 UTC 2009

Ron wrote:

I am confused about the difference between wedge and schwa. I thought the former was just a conventional way of indicating the latter. Explain?

Oy. It's a mess, Ron, as Tom Z seems to have picked up. We have to distinguish between the IPA use (which, as I tell my students, is equivalent to the famous iridium bar in Paris whose scratches used to define the 'official' length of the meter). In IPA schwa is a mid-central unrounded vowel, while wedge is a lower mid back unrounded vowel (the unrounded equivalent of open-o). So they represent different sounds, with measurable characteristics.
However, in among American linguists describing American English the symbols are used variously and confusingly. In many phonology texts they are understood to be allophones of a single English phoneme, usually symbolized with schwa.
Schwa (sensu strictu--the reduced first vowel in 'abut') occurs in unstressed syllables, while wedge (often called caret, unrelated to its similarity in shape to carrots) occurs in stressed syllables (as in the second vowel in 'abut'). There's little doubt that native speakers of English perceive the sounds to be instances of each other, all other things being equal. Asking people to say 'abut' syllable by syllable yields two wedges, for example.
Trager-Smith, the phonologization of English that many of us learned first wrote them both with the same, inverted-e symbol. I don't have Chomsky&Halle here, but I think they did too. Many contemporary American linguists do likewise, but note that this causes problems if you believe that any allophone can belong to only one phoneme, because reduced schwas often 'expand' in slow, careful pronunciation, or in related words to something else entirely: photography ~ photograph, atomic ~ atom, etc. For those of us for whom what used to be called 'phonemic overlapping' is not a problem we just note it and move on.
Clear as [m-schwa-d]?


Geoffrey S. Nathan
Faculty Liaison, C&IT
and Associate Professor, Linguistics Program
+1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
+1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics)

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