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Vowel reduction and the properties of schwa

Quantitative reduction of a vowel in unstressed position may set the stage for a reduction of the specific quality by which the vowel in question distinguishes itself from the other vowels in the vocalic system, to the extent that no more of it is left than the indeterminate, minimally specified vowel schwa. There is, thus, an intimate connection between the conditions under which vowels can reduce and the specific properties of schwa. This connection is the subject of the topic at hand.


In what follows, an overview is given of how general properties of schwa (see schwa) put limits to vowel reduction: the outcome of vowel reduction must not contradict these properties of schwa.

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See Van Oostendorp (1995:103-118)) for an overview of the properties of 'r-schwa', the result of full vowel reduction, in Dutch.

  • Schwa cannot be the only vowel of a (content) word. This means that if a word contains only one full vowel, the latter cannot undergo reduction.
  • A word cannot begin with schwa, so a word-initial vowel cannot reduce.
  • A schwa syllable in general must begin with a consonant, so a syllable-initial vowel cannot reduce.
  • A schwa syllable is not allowed to begin with the consonant /h/, so a vowel following /h/ cannot reduce.
  • In the unmarked case, a schwa syllable does not begin with a consonant cluster, so the reduction of a vowel preceded by a consonant cluster is less likely to occur.
  • In the unmarked case, a schwa syllable is open, which means that a vowel is more prone to reduction when it is in an open than in a closed syllable.
  • Simplex words are not allowed to end in the sequence schwa + consonant cluster, so a vowel does not reduce when followed by a consonant cluster.
  • Schwa cannot bear stress, which is why it is only unstressed vowels that undergo reduction.
  • As noted in Silverman Silverman (2011:Introduction), schwa is typically quite short; this links up with the fact that it is only short vowels which undergo reduction.
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In many respects, schwa has the phonological behaviour of a long vowel (see schwa). There is thus a mismatch between schwa's phonetic properties (duration) and its phonological behaviour (length). This means that vowel reduction is to be looked upon as an initially phonetically motivated process. This, however, is not the whole story. The velar nasal /ŋ/ can only be preceded by a short vowel (see the dorsal nasal /ŋ/). Now, a (short) vowel followed by /ŋ/ cannot reduce, which can be ascribed to schwa's phonological length. The process of vowel reduction must be in line with schwa's phonetic shortness, the outcome must be in conformity with schwa's phonological length.

Vowel reduction is exemplified in (1):

Example 1

Examples of vowel reduction
k [a] 'niel ~ k [ə] 'niel cinnamon
m [i] 'nút ~ m [ə] 'nút minute
G [a] 'ryp ~ G [ə] 'ryp name of a village
út [ɛ] n 'troch ~ út [ə] 'n troch every now and then
  • Oostendorp, Marc van1995Vowel Quality and Phonological ProjectionTilburg UniversityThesis
  • Silverman, Daniel2011Schwavan Oostendorp, Marc and Ewen, Colin J and Hume, Elizabeth and Rice, Keren (ed.)The Blackwell Companion to Phonology1Wiley-Blackwell628-642