University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


In a great number of languages, the presence or absence of word-medial vowels - especially schwa - is a type of variation that has drawn the interest of a number of scholars. By comparison, the variable production of schwa at the end of otherwise consonant-final words in French has gone relatively unexplored. The present study describes an analysis of word-final French schwa using Stochastic Optimality Theory to account for rates of word-final schwa in different contexts. The phenomenon is a striking example of the Richness of the Base in action in that, while schwa rates vary by context, there appears to be a potential for schwa production in all consonant-final words. This is true both for words that end in an othographic 'e' (e.g. page 'page') and words that don't (e.g. lac 'lake'), although word-final schwa appears more than twice as frequently when there is such an orthographic 'e', suggesting that it reflects a non-ubiquitous underlying vowel. Ultimately the essential variable character of word-final schwa is explained by a tension between two competing pressures that are observed elsewhere in French phonology: to align stress with the rightmost syllable in any given word, and to repair word-final codas with an unstressable vowel. We supplement this basic locus of variation with other constraints to account for rates of schwa across orthographic and phonological environments. Additionally, we demonstrate that constraint values producing schwas with a similar distribution to that in the observed data are learnable with a scaled-up version of the observed data as input.



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