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This section deals with schwa, a number of properties of which give this vowel its unique place in the vocalic system of Frisian.


Schwa has a number of properties which set it aside from the other vowels in the vocalic system.

In the first place, Silverman (2011:Introduction) asserts as to schwa's quality that vowels labeled "schwa" vary to the extent of encompassing a large portion of the vowel space, while tending to gravitate toward the center of this space. Schwa is a vowel of unclear quality and without a strong timbre. It is not without reason that in the Dutch and Frisian phonological literature it is referred to as "stomme e", i.e. 'silent or mute e' — a term which is likely to be a loan translation of French "e muet" —, as opposed to the other vowels, which are termed 'full vowels'. Sipma (1913:10,§14) calls schwa a very indistinct vowel, most often half-open mixed lax unrounded. Cohen et al. (1959:109) set it set apart as the only vowel which is 'not articulated', by which they mean 'not articulated in the vocal tract'. The scheme in Graaf (1980:79) shows that acoustically schwa constitutes a rather wide circle of F1 and F2 values rather than a more or less fixed point in the spectrum, as is the case with the full vowels.

This unclear quality may be the reason that flanking consonants and vowels may have a significant co-articulatory influence on schwa's phonetic starting and ending exposures, typically far more co-articulatory influence than on vowels of other qualities (Silverman 2011:Introduction).

Secondly, schwa is typically quite short (Silverman 2011:Introduction). In Frisian, it is the shortest vowel there is (Graaf 1985). More importantly, unlike the full vowels, schwa does not have a long counterpart.

Thirdly, schwa cannot be the only vowel of a (content) word, while a full vowel can. Typically, the words with schwa as their only vowel are function words. In the following overview they appear in alphabetical order: de the (definite article), der there (for instance in existential sentences; adverb); er he (personal pronoun (clitic allomorph of hy/hij he)); in a(n) (indefinite article); it the (definite article); it it (personal pronoun; impersonal pronoun); je one (impersonal pronoun); jin oneself (impersonal pronoun; impersonal reflexive pronoun (both oblique forms of men one)); jins oneselves (possessive pronoun (going with men one)); men one (including myself) ((inclusive) impersonal pronoun); se they (personal pronoun; impersonal pronoun); te to, at, in; too (preposition; adverb); we we (personal pronoun).

There is a sharp contrast with affixes, which are allowed to contain schwa as their only vowel. Being bound morphemes, affixes only show up as part of a complex word, viz. in combination with a stem, which always contains a full vowel.

Fourthly, a word cannot begin with schwa. Affixes, on the other hand, are allowed to begin with schwa, which, of course, only pertains to suffixes, as opposed to prefixes.

Fifthly, schwa is able to sustain no more than a limited syllable type:

  • A schwa syllable must begin with a consonant. (A word cannot begin with schwa either, see above)
  • A schwa syllable is not allowed to begin with the consonant /h/.
  • In the unmarked case, a schwa syllable does not begin with a consonant cluster.
  • In the unmarked case, a schwa syllable is open, i.e., it does not end in a consonant.
  • If a schwa syllable does end in a consonant, the latter is one of the set /m, n, l, r/ in the unmarked case. This means that it is a liquid or a nasal (with the notable exception of /ŋ/), which are sonorant consonants.
  • Simplex words are not allowed to end in the sequence schwa + consonant cluster.

In the sixth place, schwa cannot bear stress, which is one of its most striking properties.

In the seventh place, schwa is involved in three optional and variable phonological processes: vowel reduction, vowel deletion, and vowel insertion. On the one hand, full vowels reduce in quantity in unstressed position. This links up with a reduction of the specific quality by which they distinguish themselves from the other vowels in the vocalic system. This loss of quality may proceed so far that no more than schwa remains. Going one step further implies vowel deletion, which takes this reductive trajectory to its extreme. On the other hand, schwa is often inserted in consonant clusters, in order to make their realization easier. All in all, schwa is the vowel which is the ultimate reduction of every full vowel, which may even be dropped if this does not lead to ill-formedness, and which may be inserted if it yields an outcome which is easier to pronounce. The three processes alluded to are exemplified below:

Examples of vowel reduction, schwa deletion, and schwa insertion

  • Reduction of an unstressed short vowel
    Table 1
    k[a]ˈniel → k[ə]niel  cinnamon
    m[i]'nút → m[ə]nút minute
    G[a]'ryp → G[ə]ryp 'village name'
    út [ɛ]n ˈtroch → út[ə]ntroch every now and then
  • Schwa deletion
    Table 2
    Hurdeg[a]'ryp → Hurdeg[ə]ryp → Hurdegryp 'village name'
    k[ɔ]r'rekt → k[ə]rekt → krekt precise
    kap[i]'taal → kapp[ə]taal → kaptaal capital
    sig[a]'ret → sig[ə]ret → sigret  cigarette
  • Schwa insertion

    Table 3
    kalm → kall[ə]m calm, quiet
    term → terr[ə]m  intestine
    wylch → wil[ə]ch willow
    skelk → skell[ə]k apron
    skulp → skull[ə]p shell

Schwa is not part of the underlying representation of the words above. It does, however, belong to the underlying vowel inventory of Frisian. Consider the minimal pairs in the table below:

Table 4: Minimal pairs with schwa – full vowel
de /də/ the dy /di/ that; those, doe /du/ then, /du/ you (subject form, sg., familiar)
it /ət/ the at /ɔt/ if, út /yt/ out (of), it(e) /it/ to eat
in /ən/ a(n) en /ɛn/ and, yn /in/ in(to)
men /mən/ one, you man /mɔn/ man, myn /min/ my, min /mɪn/ bad

Schwa can stand in phonological opposition to a full vowel, so it has phonemic value.

Schwa cannot initiate a word, but it is allowed in word-final position (provided the word in question also contains a full vowel). As noted by Silverman (2011:§2.2), word-final schwa is quite robust and displays more stability, viz. is less susceptible to co-articulatory influence, than schwa in other positions, which increases the likelihood of schwa maintaining its contrastive status with other vowels there. The upper row of minimal pairs in the table above makes this clear, whereas it is also shown by the pairs of words in the table below (see also schwa-final nouns and nouns without final schwa):

Table 5: Some examples of pairs of the same words, without and with final schwa
it focht - de fochte /foxt(ə)/ liquid; moisture
it gol - de golle /ɡol(ə)/ storage for hay or corn in a barn
it koard - de koarde /koəd(ə)/ cord
it oard - de oarde /oəd(ə)/ region; residence
it sou - de souwe /sɔu(ə)/ riddle, sieve
it tsjil - de tsjille /tsiɪl(ə)/ wheel
it wek - de wekke /vɛk(ə)/ hole (in the ice)

Frisian has two (singular) definite articles, viz. de /də/ the and it /ət/ the (see definite articles. As to simplex nouns, the choice between de and it is largely arbitrary (see gender). To a large extent, the language-learning child simply must learn which definite article a given noun is associated with (see Visser (2011) for more on this). But arbitrariness is not the whole story. There is a correlation between noun-final schwa and the definite article de, as shown in the above examples. Schwa must be an integral part of these nouns, which also means that it is part of their underlying representation.

Not only is schwa the shortest vowel of Frisian, it also does not have a long counterpart. Now, short vowels are disfavoured in word-final position (see word-final short vowels), whereas schwa is very common there. Phonologically speaking thus schwa does not behave like a genuine short vowel in every respect. Trommelen (1984:18-21) provides several instances of Dutch schwa behaving as a long vowel. First, there are phonotactic similarities between long vowels and schwa: 1) both can occur before consonant clusters of a nasal/liquid + a dental, but not before one of a nasal/liquid + a non-dental, 2) neither can occur before a cluster of two sonorant consonants (liquid + nasal), 3) both are allowed in word-final position. Second, long vowels and schwa behave alike with respect to some morphonological regularities: 4) when the comparative suffix -er ( /-ər/) is attached to an adjective ending in both a long vowel + /r/ and schwa + /r/, the consonant -d- is obligatorily inserted between the stem and the suffix, 5) nouns ending in schwa select the same diminutive suffix as those ending in a long vowel.

Of the above, 2)-4) also hold for schwa in Frisian. Simplex words in Frisian are not allowed to end in the sequence schwa + consonant cluster, so 1) is valid for Frisian anyway. As to 4), it should be noted that the syllable /(rər)./ is forbidden in Frisian, as it is in Dutch (see Visser (1997:161-163) and Booij (1995:73-74), respectively). At an abstract level, diminutive formation in Frisian (diminutives) and Dutch are comparable processes, but there are so many differences in the details that 5) has no bearing on Frisian. There is a final case in point. In Frisian a vowel is systematically long when preceding the sequence /-n{s/z}/ (see nasal vowels and vowel length). Frisian also has the nominalizing suffix -ens ( /əns/), as in goedens /ɡuəd+əns/ goodness and koartens /kwat+əns/ shortness. This suffix is phonotactically well-formed, so schwa behaves as a long vowel here. It may be concluded that schwa in Frisian shares some characteristics with long vowels.

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See schwa's phonological representation for a treatment of the issue of how schwa is to be represented phonologically.

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