Vowel /ʌ, ə, ɜ/ phonemes (short central vowels)

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The vowels /ʌ, ə, ɜ/ are short vowels that are central or centralized in position in many or most varieties of English.

  1. The vowel /ə/, known as schwa, is the standard central vowel that occurs in unstressed syllables, as in comma or in the when unstressed.
  2. The vowel /ʌ/ is actually a back vowel, but is often centralized, and is a short vowel occurring in stressed syllables like hut.
  3. The vowel /ɜ/ is a central vowel, and is a rhotic or r-colored variant of the vowel /ʌ/ as in herb.
  4. A fourth variant is a rhotic form of the schwa, /ər/, in unstressed syllables before /r/, as in her or letter.


1 Linguistic description

These three vowels are very similar, especially in their phonetic realization in English.

1.1 /ʌ/

  • In terms of tongue position, /ʌ/ is open-mid or low-mid, which means the back of the tongue is positioned halfway between an open or low vowel like the /a/ of father and a mid vowel like the long /o/. Positionally, it is identical to the back vowel /ɔ/ as in taught, but /ʌ/ is unrounded, while /ɔ/ is rounded, i.e., the lips are rounded.
  • The /ʌ/ is particularly unrounded (with lips spread) in American English, and slightly rounded in British, but not like the fully rounded /ɔ/.
  • In many varieties of North American, British, and Australian English, /ʌ/ is centralized, or not fully back, so that the locus of pronunciation is between the center and the back of the tongue.
  • In English, this vowel occurs in short stressed syllables, often spelled <-u-> as in hut. Thus, it occurs more often in content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adjectives).
  • The IPA symbol /ʌ/ can be referred to as a wedge, a caret, or a hat.

1.2 /ə/

  • In terms of tongue position, /ə/ is a mid-central vowel; its locus is over the central part of the tongue, and the tongue is in middle position, i.e., not low as the /a/ in father and not high like the /u/ in flute.
  • The vowel is unrounded.
  • The vowel and vowel symbol are called schwa, from the Hebrew name for the vowel, as it is a common vowel in Hebrew and was familiar to traditional linguists.
  • This vowel only occurs in short, unstressed syllables. It is very similar to /ʌ/, but while /ʌ/ is a short vowel, the schwa is extra-short due to its short duration in unstressed positions. It is often referred to as a reduced or neutral vowel, as it results from naturally unstressed syllables, or from vowels that are reduced to due being unstressed, e.g., the vowels in the, a, an being reduced to /ə/ in normal and fast speech.
  • This occurs in function words (non-content words) and in many reduced or unstressed syllables of English.

1.3 /ər/

  • This is simply an r-colored vowel in unstressed rhotic syllables, i.e., syllables with an unstressed vowel plus /r/ like her.
  • In British English, the <r> is often dropped in such syllables, such that the vowel sound is /ə/ by itself, as in her /hə/; here, the /r/ drop may make the vowel slightly longer, and might be written /ə:/.
  • This can be written phonetically in different ways, e.g., with or without <r> due to r-dropping in British, or an r-hook instead of <r> in some texts. Thus: /ə:/, /ər/, or /ɚ/.

1.4 /ɜ/

  • In tongue position, /ɜ/ is a central open-mid or low-mid vowel, with the central tongue position slightly lower in the mouth than for /ə/.
  • It is unrounded.
  • The vowel /ɜ/ is a rhotic or r-colored vowel, essentially a variant of the /ʌ/ in syllables before /r/, as in herb /hɜrb/. It only occurs in English in this rhotic position in stressed syllables.
  • The IPA symbol /ɜ/ is a reversed epsilon.
  • In British English, the <r> is often dropped in such syllables, such that the vowel sound is /ɜ/ by itself, as in herb /ɜ/; here, the /r/ drop may make the vowel slightly longer, and might be written /ɜ:/.
  • Because it is essentially a rhotic version of the /ʌ/, and because it is dropped in British English, it could be written variously, e.g., with or without <r>, or with an r-hook instead, and thus: /ɜ/, /ɜ:/, /ɝ/, /ɜr/, /ʌr/.

1.5 Comparison

These vowels are very similar if not identical in their phonetic realization in many or most varieties of English. Very few if any true minimal pairs exist that distinguish these vowels as truly different phonemes (see below). They also seem to be in complimentary distribution, i.e., each one is restricted to one phonetic environment where the other does not occur: the short vowel /ʌ/ occurs in short stressed syllables; the schwa /ə/ occurs only in unstressed (non-rhotic) syllables; the schwa+r combination /ə/ only occurs in unstressed rhotic syllables, where the /r/ could be considered a semi-vocalic diphthongal offglide; and the rhotic vowel /ɜ/ occurs only in short, stressed rhotic syllables (i.e., followed by /r/). Thus, they could be considered as allophones (phonetic variants) of one single phoneme.

A possible phonetic distinction might be heard between dialectal pronunciations of -er words where the /r/ is dropped, e.g., ‘sister’ as /sɪstə/ cf. /sɪstʌ/, but this is not a phonemic distinction.

1.6 Cross-linguistic comparison

Some European languages have neutral vowels similar to /ə/ and /ɜ/, especially in unstressed syllables (e.g., final unstressed <e> = /ə/ as in German Stunde) and unstressed rhotic syllables (e.g., German oder, though this German vowel is slightly lower or more open than the schwa or /ɜ/, and is transcribed as /ɐ/ in IPA). French has a vowel similar to the schwa vowel, though it may be slightly more rounded than in English, so some phonologists treat it as a rounded front vowel /œ/ or a rounded central vowel /ɵ/ (e.g., ce = /sə/ or /sɵ/ or /œ/ "this, that"). Mandarin has a back vowel like /ʌ/, but it is slightly higher in the back of the mouth, e.g, gēn /gɤn/. Mandarin also has a sound like /ər/ in syllable-final vowel + /r/ combinations, as in the syllable er, but the /r/ is pronounced more strongly with the tongue bent further back in the mouth, and the syllable is not reduced. Korean has the vowel /ʌ/, which is slightly rounded like the British /ʌ/, e.g., 벌 bŭl "bee."

1.7 Teaching production

Teachers can begin with a similar vowel in the students' first language (L1) if it exists. For Chinese learners, this can start with the Chinese back vowel (the gēn vowel) and relaxing and lowering the tongue to pronounced /ʌ/ or /ə/; and starting with er but moving the tongue tip forward and shortening the syllable for /ər/ or /ɜ/. For Koreans, one can start with the Korean 어 vowel, and possibly spreading the lips more (for North American English) or relaxing the tongue. For many learners, teaching will involve reducing the length of the vowel for unstressed syllables.

Since these three vowels are similar or nearly identical, it is not necessary them as different vowels. One could use the same symbol for all three sounds /ʌ, ə, ɜ/, and the same symbol for /ər, ɜr/. Students nonetheless do need to understand the different variants and their pronunciation: regular length for the hut vowel, reduced length for the the vowel, and r-coloring for the herb and her vowels; for the latter, they need to be aware that the /r/ is pronounced in American English but dropped in British.


2 Practice items

2.1 /ʌ/ words

Here are a few words with /ʌ/.

cub
bubba
bubble
bucket
butter
clutches
double
rubber
stubborn
duchy
touching
bludgeon
flood
ruddy        
sudden
muddle
muffle
toughen
buffer
puffy
tuft
snuggle
mugger
muggy
judge
cudgel
hut
budget        
muck
stucco
ruckus
sullen
cult
pummel
luncheon
hunk
sunken
unction
junket
bunker        
puppy
Russian
usher
luscious
tux
buzz
subtle
gusto
doth
nothing
other
shovel
lover
covet        

2.2 /ə/ words

Many schwa words exist in English, e.g.,

  • about, taken, sibyl, adept

As an exercise, students can be tasked with identifying unstressed syllables or relevant spelling patterns, as in these words.

  • capable, habitual, gradually, burglar, a wizard
  • treated, level, velociraptor
  • protection
  • sublime, but (unstressed)
  • the preparations, phonetically,


Now try to find the /ə/ in these words.

accepted
alien
aluminum
capital
carbon
colloidal
conglomerate
corrosive
cosmology
Dakota
disambiguation        
financial
generally
idiopathological
inexplicable
inexplicable
kaleidoscope
microscopic
molybdenum
neurocognitive
pentameter
phosphorus        
potassium
private
reputable
rhotacized
separate
syllable
symbol
telescope
triskaidekaphobia        


2.3 /ər/ words

Here are some words for practice, or finding the /ər/ in unstressed /r/ syllables.

  • her, butter, rudder, energy, carburetor, butyraceous, survive


2.4 /ɜ/ words

Here are some words for practice, or finding the /ɜ/ in /r/ syllables. In British English, the /r/ is dropped, leaving a slightly longer /ɜ/.

  • fur, furry, incur, learn, current, erg, urgent, urban, earl, unfurl, world


3 Minimal pairs

Minimal pairs for distinguish these three sounds are rare, and for some varieties of English, they may not exist; some possible minimal pairs may seem dubious.

3.1 /ə/ versus /ʌ/

These are not clear minimal pairs; the pronunciation of hmm can vary, and the name Um would not be familiar to most people.

/ə/ /ʌ/
hmm /həm/ (interjection / discourse marker) hum /hʌm/ (verb / noun)
um /əm/ (pause / filler marker) Um / Eom /ʌm/ (Korean family name 엄 written in English)
a /ə/ (definite article, e..g, "a plum")             ugh /ʌ/ interjection (e.g., “Ugh, I can’t take it!”)            

A few near-minimal pairs exist, which involve a stress difference as well as a vowel difference:

  • updend / append
  • discuss / discus


3.2 /ɜ/ versus /ə/

For /ɜ/ versus /ə/, few word pairs exist, mostly in British.

/ɜ/ /ə/            
errs
foreword
divers (adj.)
earn / urn
er (pause filler)
chauffeuse
curs
upturn            
us
forward
divers
an / ‘un
a (unstressed)
chauffeurs
cos
Upton            

The first divers is an archaic adjective meaning "various," not used in modern English.


3.3 /ʌ/ versus UK /ɜ/ or US /ɜr/

As minimal pairs, these tend to work better for British English; in North American English, the /ɜ/ occurs as part of /ɜr/, which some would perceive as two phonemes.

bug berg

bun Bern
bunny Bernie
bud bird
blood blurred
bubble burble
buck burke
bugger burgher
buns burns
buzz burrs
bused burst
bust burst
button burton
colour curler
cub curb
cud curd
cuddle curdle
cull curl
cuss curse        

cut curt

dove derv
duck dirk
dost durst
fun fern
funny ferny
furrier furrier
fussed first
fuzz firs
gull girl
govern Girvan
hub herb
Hun Herne
huddle hurdle
hull hurl
hurt hut
luck lurk
luxe lurks
musses mercies        

mutton Merton

muck murk
mucky murky
mummer murmur
puck perk
putt pert
pus purse
scuff scurf
scull skirl
scut skirt
sough serf
sough surf
summon sermon
shuck shirk
shut shirt
Shucks shirks
spud spurred
spun spurn
stun stern        

stunner sterner

stud stirred
study sturdy
suckle circle
suds surds
sully surly
supplest surpliced
Sutton certain
ton tern
ton turn
thumb therm
thud third
tough turf
tunny tourney
tuft turfed
tups turps
tuck Turk        


4 Notes


4.1 See also

Portal:Phonology