The schwa

When some examiners gave a briefing for teachers a few years ago, one of them needed to quote two lines from the Ars Amatoria (I.117-118):

ut fugiunt aquilas timidissima turba columbae,
utque fugit visos agna novella lupos…

It came out roughly as:
ut fugiunt aquilas timidissimer turber kerlumbae,
utque fugit visos agner nerveller lupos…

He was using the schwa, that is, ‘the central vowel sound /ə/, typically occurring in weakly stressed syllables, as in the final syllable of ‘sofa’ and the first syllable of ‘along.’ (OED definition)

The BBC World Service website explains further:
‘The schwa does not only represent a single letter. In some words it is the sound of several letters or even a whole syllable. This is often, but not only, seen in words which have a syllable made up of a vowel letter followed by the letter ‘r.’ Remember the schwa sound is only used if the syllable is not stressed.

This present is for my brother. It’s a book about a boy wizard.

To survive the cold weather you have to make thorough preparations.’

The schwa is a characteristic of stress-timed languages, of which the most well known is English. It is absent from Latin, Italian and Spanish, because they are syllable-timed languages and give every vowel its proper sound and length.

So: no schwa please, when reading Latin or Greek aloud. And those languages need to be read aloud. Neither Romans nor Greeks read silently, and anyone seen doing so was thought to be behaving strangely. And any writer—of letter, history, oration or poetry—said the words aloud in the process.

It is useful to have a Spanish or Italian pupil in a Latin or Greek lesson. When asked to read a passage aloud, they automatically do it in the correct way. Whatever the changes of sound when Latin became pidginized into these two languages in the Middle Ages, they still retain their syllable-timed character.


Next post: Reading poetry .

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