Marc van Oostendorp
Schwa in phonological theory


Postal Address

HIL/Leiden University
Postbus 9515
2300 RA Leiden
The Netherlands

This website contains the syllabus plus the handouts of a course on schwa for graduate students; I have also included as many links to papers on schwa on the Internet as I could find.

Course level: Knowledge of the basic issues in autosegmental theory, syllable structure theory and optimality theory is presupposed.

Course description

If we find a schwa in the vowel inventory of a language, this schwa almost invariably has a special role to play. It is often stressless, it often acts as an epenthetic vowel, it is often the target of reduction, and it often can occur in a very simple type of syllable (e.g. the 'core syllable') only. Because it has these special properties, schwa provides a unique testcase for any theory of phonology. In this course we will investigate what the specific conditions on the appearance of the schwa are, and how we can account for them. Our main theoretical focus will be on Nonlinear Phonology and Optimality Theory, but proposals from other theoretical frameworks will be discussed as well.

Day-to-day programme

Schwa: an overview of its phonological and phonetic properties; underspecification theory; phonological emptiness; high schwa and low schwa.
Schwa deletion and schwa epenthesis; problems and advantages for an account in terms of phonological (proper) government for French; epenthesis as rule inversion; an Optimality-Theoretic account.
Vowel reduction; a cross-linguistic overview of the facts; reduction as feature loss; problems and advantages of an account in terms of faithfulness to the head for Dutch; 'halfway reduction' in Russian.
Schwa as an underlying vowel; stress behaviour; feature attraction and the ban on emptiness; schwa as a mid vowel; ways to fill the void.
Some case studies: Yupik, Frisian, Turkish; overview of the remaining problems; an invitation to schwa.

Background/preparatory readings

Course readings

Further readings

Students are invited to bring any material on schwa's in any language they are interested in.

For further information, mail to: