how hebrew “schwa” entered German
Posted: 18 August 2007 09:58 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m trying to find out how the word “schwa” made it from Hebrew to German (and then later to English.) All I’ve been able to find is that German linguists adopted the word, but nothing about who, when, or why. I have seen the OED entry that says the word entered English in 1895, but nothing about its earlier roots. Any ideas? Or how I can research this further?

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Posted: 18 August 2007 10:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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This site gives a name:

The actual [schwa] symbol, ie the inverted letter ‘e’, has been in phonetics for much longer. The first person to use it with the modern IPA value was the German linguist Johann Andreas Schmeller (1785-1852) in 1821; many people subsequently used it during the course of the 19th century, but the name of the symbol, schwa, didn’t surface in English until Giles and his 1895 book. Before Schmeller, the symbol had been used, but for a totally different sound

Hope that gets you a little further.

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Posted: 19 August 2007 12:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I had seen that link, but it’s not entirely clear to me if it is saying that Schmeller started the use of the upside-down e for the sound, or actually began using the word schwa. From my reading - I think the former, although perhaps both were true.

This page seems also to indicate that he was the first one to flip the “e”.

There are a number of German web sites that include the terms Schmeller and schwa - maybe some German reader could let me know if any of them shine some light on this issue?

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Posted: 19 August 2007 04:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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From one of the posts in the thread on the site aldi linked to:

“The word ‘schwa’ comes from a Hebrew word, approximately
transliterated as ‘sheva’, or ‘shewa’, which means ‘nothingness’.

According to the AHD, the Semitic root means “to be(come) even, equal”.  Did it come to mean “nothingness” in Hebrew or do we have disagreement here?

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Posted: 19 August 2007 06:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The OED1 has an entry for sheva (with the same Hebrew etymology given above): first citation as a term of Hebrew grammar, is 1827, S. Lee, Hebr. Gram. 19 “On sheva and its substitutes”. 1837, G. Phillips Syriac Gram. 3 “When no vowel is expressed, then as in the Hebrew a sheva ... will be implied and read accordingly”. The second meaning given is the one from phonetics: J. B. Bury in Class. Rev. Oct. 251/2 “The w by labiation from q and the second ă a sheva”. There is no entry for schwa.

The online Grimms’ German dictionary lacks an entry for either schwa or schewa, though I know that the German IE philologists used the term, as in PIE das Schwa secundum or Schwa mobile, at least by the early 20th century, though I’ve also seen the linguistic term Murmelvokal used for schwa in the general linguistics sense. The online Trésor has an entry for chva, schwa with a citation date of 1838.

My conjecture is that the term was imported from Hebrew by early 19th century European bible scholars and then made its way into the general linguistic vocabulary sometime thereafter.

[Addendum: I found an interesting set of slides, here, discussing e muet. They record the first occurence of scheva in French in the Port-Royal grammar (1660): “Il reste l’e muet ou feminin, qui n’est dans son origine qu’un son sourd, conjoint aux consones, lorsqu’on les veut prononcer sans voyelles, comme lorsqu’elles sont suivies immédiatement d’autres consonnes, ainsi que dans ce mot, scamnum : c’est ce que les Hebreux appellent scheva, surtout lorsqu’il commēce la syllabe. Et ce scheva se trouve necessairement en toutes les langues, quoy qu’on n’y prenne pas garde, parce qu’il n’y a point de caractere pour le marquer. Mais quelques langues vulgaires, comme l’Alemand et le François, l’ont marqué par la voyelle e, ajoutant ce son aux autres qu’elle avoit déjà : et de plus ils ont fait que cet e féminin fait une syllabe avec sa consonne, comme est la seconde dans netteté, j’aymeray, donneray, &c. ce que ne faisoit pas le scheva dans les autres langues, quoique plusieurs fassent cette faute en prononçant le scheva des Hébreux.” Another citation is to Beauzee’s 1762 Grammaire générale.]

[ Edited: 19 August 2007 08:23 AM by jheem ]
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Posted: 19 August 2007 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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jheem - 19 August 2007 06:23 AM

the same Hebrew etymology given above

Would that be the “nothingness” one or the “to be(come) even, equal” one?

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Posted: 19 August 2007 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Would that be the “nothingness” one or the “to be(come) even, equal” one?

Sorry about that: The OED1 gives “a. Rabbinic Hebr. שוא /šəvāʔ/, app. an arbitrary alteration of /šāvʔ/ ‘emptiness, vanity’”. OTOH, Klein’s Hebrew etymological dictionary gives a different origin: “borrowed from Syr. /šəvayāʔ/ (= the seven points), lit.: ‘even’ or ‘equal’ (points) ... related to Hebr. שוה /šāvāh/ (was even, smooth, or the like)”. Jastrow has /šāvəʔ/ ‘(vacancy), vanity, inanity, falsehood’. I’m sure that Balashon can help us with the Hebrew etymology as that’s his thing.

[Corrected omission.]

[ Edited: 19 August 2007 03:03 PM by jheem ]
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Posted: 19 August 2007 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Wow - thanks for all your help. Based on the early German and French quotes, I guess I’m not going to find out exactly how schwa was borrowed from Hebrew.

On the one hand I found it surprising that European languages would need or want to borrow a Hebrew vowel. First of all, there was a strong degree of animosity from the Europeans to the Jews, and I would imagine there would be some degree of pride involved in saying that they would need to use a “Jewish” vowel. And it is important to note that this is not a Biblical word that could have entered the European lexicon along with the Old Testament.  It was “invented” by Jewish scholars during the Middle Ages.

But on the other hand, in the Latin alphabet every vowel had its own letter. So I guess Hebrew - with names for vowels that aren’t letters - would be helpful for naming the sound for which there was no current letter.

As far as the relation between schwa and either “equal” or “nothing”, while some older (19th century) sources said that schwa may have come from the word meaning “nothing”, and that perhaps equal and nothing are related, modern sources disagree. They say that the word comes from a root related to the word meaning equal.

All of this should go in my post on “schwa” - so keep watching…

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Posted: 19 August 2007 02:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Here is an example of the inverted/turned “e” called “schwa” in English from 1888.

J. E. King and C. Cookson, _The Principles of Sound and Inflexion as Illustrated in the Greek and Latin Languages_ (Clarendon, 1888), p. 70: <<In the notation of the I.-E. alphabet we write it _@_ and speak of it as the I.-E. _schwa_.>>

Where I have put “@” there is a modern-style inverted-e schwa-symbol. The vowel is described as an “indeterminate vowel” in Greek and Latin. From the discussion this is similar to what is denoted by “schwa” nowadays. “I.-E.” apparently = “Indoeuropean”.

[ Edited: 19 August 2007 02:32 PM by D Wilson ]
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Posted: 19 August 2007 02:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Is it pure coincidence that “schwa” resembles German “schwach” = “weak”?

Otto Hoffmann, _Die griechischen Dialekte in ihrem historischen Zusammenhange mit den wichtigsten ihrer Quellen_ (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Goettingen, 1898), p. 292: <<Der schwache vokalische Klang (Schwa-Vokal) ...>>.

At least it seems the schwa was/is something schwach, in German.

Perhaps this chance resemblance influenced the German word, if only orthographically?

Perhaps it influenced the modern English-language preference for “schwa” over “sheva”?

[ Edited: 19 August 2007 02:39 PM by D Wilson ]
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Posted: 19 August 2007 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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On the one hand I found it surprising that European languages would need or want to borrow a Hebrew vowel. First of all, there was a strong degree of animosity from the Europeans to the Jews

Two different things.  Christians had a reverence towards the Old Testament and its language, which went into the makeup of the Christian Bible.  Modern Jews, on the other hand, had clung to their outdated texts and refused to accept the good news brought by Jesus, so they were condemned.

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Posted: 19 August 2007 06:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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They didn’t borrow the vowel, so much as the name for it. The schwa exists in many languages, e.g., Sanskrit and English. What was borrowed was a name, and what was invented was a glyph, the upside-down e.

[Fixed formatting mistake.]

[ Edited: 20 August 2007 05:51 AM by jheem ]
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Posted: 19 August 2007 10:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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languagehat - 19 August 2007 04:10 PM

On the one hand I found it surprising that European languages would need or want to borrow a Hebrew vowel. First of all, there was a strong degree of animosity from the Europeans to the Jews

Two different things.  Christians had a reverence towards the Old Testament and its language, which went into the makeup of the Christian Bible.  Modern Jews, on the other hand, had clung to their outdated texts and refused to accept the good news brought by Jesus, so they were condemned.

Right, that’s my point. The Old Testament, and even the Hebrew letters it was written in, had sanctity for the Christians. But the word schwa (not the sound) was created by “modern” Jews, just as much as their medieval commentaries on the Bible. That’s why I found it surprising it was adopted.

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