Chapter 123: The schwa vowel

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 123.

The schwa vowel, generally written as [ə], occurs frequently in unstressed syllables in English, Dutch and French, as well as in European Portuguese (though not in Spanish). This sound is interesting in the present context because its distribution in the pidgins and creoles is much more limited. It occurs in less than half of the APiCS languages:

[ə] exists as a major allophone18
[ə] exists as a minor allophone13
[ə] exists only in loanwords2
[ə] does not exist43

Schwa occurs in the three Dutch-based languages, as well as in ten English-based languages, which tend to be less basilectal, and in the Cape Verdean Creole varieties, which are less basilectal than the other Portuguese-based varieties of Africa. The more basilectal English-based Atlantic creoles (such as Pichi, Ghanaian Pidgin English, Sranan and Saramaccan) lack schwa. In the French-based languages, schwa is generally absent (with the exception of a few words from French in Mauritian Creole).

Schwa from the lexifier was widely replaced by other vowels, especially [i] and [a]. For example, French [ə] becomes [i] in Michif (e.g. fimel ‘female’, from French femelle) and Haitian Creole (vini ‘come’, from French venir) and [e] in Seychelles Creole (e.g. letan ‘time’, from French le temps ‘the time’), and the second vowel of fashion is transcribed as [ɑ] in Chinese Pidgin English.

While African languages tend to have rich vowel systems (cf. Chapter 121), they typically have symmetrical five-vowel or seven-vowel systems lacking schwa Holm 1988: 116), so the relative scarcity of schwa in Atlantic pidgins and creoles may be due to the influence of the indigenous African languages.

In the European languages, schwa is generally restricted to unstressed syllables. The situation is similar in many Malay varieties (e.g. Singapore Bazaar Malay belúm ‘not yet’), as well as in Malay-influenced languages such as Papiá Kristang (e.g. rëdónu ‘round’) and Batavia Creole ótër ‘other’ (from Portuguese outro; schwa is written as ë). But in South Asian languages, [ə] may also occur as the main vowel of a monosyllabic word, e.g. Sri Lanka Portuguese capa ‘hat’ (schwa may be written as a in these languages).