Writing Schwa

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In addition to the five main vowels a, e, i, o and u, Mi'gmaq has an additional "sixth vowel", or schwa. Written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is [ə]. When written in the Listuguj orthography, it is written with an apostrophe. However, regardless of the spelling system used, it is for the most part not written. This page describes the places where schwa is written and where it is not.


[edit] Where to Write Schwa

Schwa is written in any place where it is not predictable by rule. That is, it is written when it is said and not predicted by the writing system. The following section will detail the places where schwa is predictable and therefore not written.

[edit] Where NOT to Write Schwa

These are all the places where schwa is predictable and not included in the orthography. They are broken up by word-initial, word-medial, and word-final epenthesis or insertion rules. As a general rule of thumb, a schwa is inserted wherever a sequence of consonants cannot be syllabified in Mi'gmaq.

[edit] Word-Initial

The general rule for word-initial schwa epenthesis is as follows:

"When a word begins with two consonants, insert a schwa before the most sonorous consonant."

In this case, the "most sonorous" consonant is the consonant that is the loudest, or pronounced closest to the way a vowel is pronounced [1]. In Mi'gmaq, the hierarchy is as follows:

all vowels > l > n > m > s, p, t, g, q, gw, qw, and j

Some examples of where to insert schwa are given in the table below. Syllables are marked off with dots. All audio examples are taken from the Mi'gmaq Talking Dictionary.

Schwa before m, n, l
lnui'sit [əlː.nu.iː.sitʰ] 'he speaks the native language'
lmu'j [əl.muːtʃ] 'dog'
mlagejg [mə.la.gɛtʃkʰ] 'milk'
nmu'j [ən.muːtʃ] 'dog' (alternate pronunciation)
mntn [mənː.dən] 'mountain'
smtug [səm̩̊ː.tukʷʰ] 'right away'
slaps [sə.laps] 'slab of wood'
snawei [sə.na.wej] 'maple tree'

When the two consonants have the same sonority, however, the schwa is always placed before the first consonant. The following are some examples:

Schwa before Consonants of the Same Sonority
sgu'l [əsː.kuːl] 'school'
stoqon [əsː.tɔ.hon] 'fir tree'
lluigneg [əl.lu.i.gə.nɛkʰ] 'seven'
tgnu [ətʰ.kə.nu] 'sweat'
tqoq [ətʰ.ʕɔq͡χ] 'last fall'
ptaqan [əp.ta.ħan] 'plate'
tplutaqan [ət.pə.lu.da.ħan] 'law'
gsnqo'qon [ək.sənˑ.hoː.hwɔn] 'foolishness'

[edit] Word-Medial

When two consonants appear between two vowels within a word (and are not identical consonants, or a geminate consonant), the epenthesis rules are slightly different. Usually, the schwa appears between the consonants. However, this will only happen if the first consonant is lower in sonority than the second. In other words:

"When two non-identical consonants are between two vowels, insert a schwa only if the first consonant is less sonorous than the second. 
Otherwise, insert no schwa."

So, for example, a schwa will be inserted between q and n in the word oqnisgwa'tu, 'cover it up', so that it is pronounced [o.ħə.nis.gwaː.du]. However, no schwa is necessary between the s and the gw in this word since s is of the same sonority as gw. No schwa is needed in the word jiptug, 'perhaps', as well, since both consonants are of the same sonority.

Note, however, that the consonants l, m, and n count as the same sonority in this case - there is no schwa inserted between the m and the l in gamlamit, 'he or she breathes', because they count as the same.

When three or more consonants appear between two vowels (or word-initially), the schwa is generally inserted before the most sonorous, as in the word-initial cases listed above. Three examples are given below:

Schwa Insertion with Three Consonants
tplutaqan [ət.pə.lu.da.ħan] 'law'
o'plteg [oː.bəl.dɛkʰ] 'it's not set right'
gmsnmuaw [kəm.sən.mu.aw] 'do not take (imperative)'

In o'plteg, some speakers may simply replace the vowel with the l and pronounce it [oː.bl̩.dɛk]. This is very common word-finally, as in istua'latl, 'he or she turns him or her sideways', pronounced [isˑ.du.aː.la.tl̩].

For words that have many consonants in a row, it is best to pick out the most sonorous and insert a schwa before it. So, if a form like gsnqo'qon, 'foolishness', is encountered, a schwa will be inserted first before the n, giving the provisionary [ksən.qoː.qon]. No schwa needs to be inserted between the n and the q, since n is higher in sonority than q. A further schwa is needed to break up the gs, however, so by the word-initial rules, it is inserted before the g, giving the final [ək.sən.hoː.hwon].

If there is a double consonant or geminate, however, the schwa will appear after the geminate, as in ennmtesg, 'it pierces', pronounced [ɛn.nəm.tɛskʰ]. This is occasionally written with the apostrophe in the Listuguj orthography and occasionally not.

[edit] Word-Final

When two consonants are located at the end of a word, a schwa is only inserted if the second consonant is more sonorous than the first consonant.† Some examples are given below:

Word-Final Schwa Insertion
sign [si.gən] 'sock, stocking'
tapu'gl [ta.puː.gəl] 'two of them'

† There is debate over whether there is actually a schwa inserted here, or if the sonorant is syllabic. For discussion, please see the page Stress.

If the two consonants are of equal sonority or are identical, no schwa is inserted, as in the following examples:

No Schwa Insertion
agnutg [a.gə.nutkʰ] 'he or she talks about it'
sigu'sgw [si.guːskʷʰ] 'widow'
sgilminn [əs.gɪl.mɪnn] 'seeds'

[edit] References

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