A Diachronic Analysis of Schwa in French

Joshua M. Griffiths


Since the beginning of the formal study of language, linguists have struggled with the phonological problems posed by the mid-central vowel sound schwa. Schwa poses a series of challenges for linguists who study many languages, and this is particularly true for phonologists and phoneticians who specialize in French.  Most of the challenges that come from analyzing the articulations of schwa in French arise from the overlap it has with mid- and open-mid-front-rounded vowels in French such as in the second vowel in the word “atelier” (workshop) and the second vowel in the word “appeler” (to call.)

In this study I have performed a diachronic (historic) analysis of schwa in the French language in order to more easily explain the problems that schwa poses for Franco-linguists today.  First of all, I have described the nature of schwa and how that plays into its role in Modern French.  I then described the problems posed by reduced schwa vowels and the phonological processes that cause these reductions in Modern French.  Vowel reduction is a phonetic process that occurs when changes in the articulation of the vowel such as stress, sonority, and loudness cause the vowel to be “weaker.”  Finally, I have conducted a diachronic analysis of the historical environments of schwa from Old French to Modern French in order to attempt to explain the challenges posed by schwa in modern French.  My methodology involved me finding the phonetic environments in which schwa has traditionally appeared from Old French to Modern French.  I then examined how those environments changed between each time period of French to see how those changes have influenced modern phonological processes that influence the articulation of schwa.

This study has shown that the disappearance and appearance of sounds in the phonemic inventory of French has greatly impacted how schwa is articulated in Modern French.  Other linguistic processes such as labialization that were realized on schwa in the past are no longer realized, but they have proven to be essential in shaping the current vowel inventory of French.


French; Historic Linguistics; Phonology

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.