Vowels in unstressed syllables

A common mistake is to transcribe full vowels for English unstressed syllables. If you transcribe banana as [bæ'nænæ], you are claiming that all three vowels are identical (except in loudness). Even in the slowest and most careful pronunciations, this isn't true. What symbol should be used instead?

The short, sort of accurate, answer is: all unstressed syllables in English have the "schwa" [turned-e]. The exceptions are that final unstressed syllables can sometimes have full vowels (e.g., potato) and [i] can often be unstressed even in the middle of words (e.g., radiate).

The longer, more accurate answer relies on the distinction between narrow and broad transcription.

Unstressed vowels in English are quite variable. The same speaker will pronounce the vowel [^] in the second syllable of enough much the same way every time, but the schwa in the first syllable can be pronounced very differently on different occasions, sometimes even resembling full vowels like [I], [E], or [^]. [Note]

Schwa and R

In broad transcriptions, Rogers transcribes the "er" sound of words like fur/fir as [6r], even when this occurs in a stressed syllable. This choice has the initial advantage for many learners that all you have to do is turn the more familiar "er" upside down. It has the disadvantage that it's not an accurate reflection of what the mouth is doing. The consonant [r] is made by curling the tongue tip upward. In a word like fur, the tongue tip is already curled up by the end of the [f], usually earlier. There is simply no slice of time between the [f] and the [r] that we can call a vowel.

One common solution to this problem is to transcribe the "er" sound with the special IPA symbol [schwa-hook]. Unfortunately, there are no special symbols to solve the similar problem with [n], [l], and [m] -- for example, in normal speech there is simply no vowel between the [t] and the [n] of button, despite the usual broad transcription [b^t6n]. We will return to this problem later in the course when we discuss "syllabicity". For now, it's easiest to continue using schwas in broad transcriptions of words like these.

A dialect glitch

Many speakers of English have intuitions that there are two different unstressed vowels and changing one for the other can change the meaning of the word.

graph with two overlapping clusters The classical minimal pair to illustrate this distinction, in dialects that make it, is roses versus Rosa's. You could record a speaker of such a dialect saying roses and Rosa's a hundred times each and plot on a graph the position of the speaker's tongue during the final vowel. There would be a large cloud of different positions for roses and a large cloud of positions for Rosa's -- there would be a large area where the two clouds overlapped, but it would still be clear the clouds had different centres.

graph with only one cluster If you did the same graph for a speaker of a dialect that doesn't make this distinction (like me), the two clouds would overlap so much that there would be no justification for saying that the two words had different vowels.

In transcribing roses and Rosa's, the difference between narrow and broad transcription is again relevant.

The transcriptions in the textbook fall somewhere in between. Rogers generally uses schwa for the vowels of unstressed syllables, but occasionally uses [I] in words where dialects which make the schwa/barred-i constrast would use barred-i, e.g., relax. (This is not entirely consistent. Even if a speaker does have two clouds for their unstressed vowels, the grounds for identifying the higher cloud with the vowel of hit are no stronger than the grounds for identifying the lower cloud with the vowel of cup.)

In my transcriptions, I will only use [schwa] for neutral unstressed vowels, i.e., for all unstressed vowels that are not full vowels, like the [i] in happy or [o] in potato. On assignments and tests, using schwa in broad transcriptions will always be acceptable. It's also a good habit to get into, as one way of unlearning habits that might carry over from English spelling.

Note: On some occasions, the two vowels of enough can be pronounced extremely similarly, especially when the word is being pronounced with unnatural slowness or carefulness or with more emphasis on the first syllable than it gets in normal speech. Writing [] as [] in a broad transcription is an easy trap to fall into if you are not careful to pronounce the word with normal speed and normal carefulness.

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