“Prime Ministaw:” Jamaican Rounded Schwa

Portia Simpson-Miller (wikimedia)

Portia Simpson-Miller (wikimedia)

Most Anglophone Caribbean nations have dialect continua, with an English Creole at one end and some variety of Standard English at the other. I find Jamaica’s continuum particularly fascinating for the ways in which “Jamaican English” (i.e. Standard English as spoken in Jamaica) dissociates itself from the nation’s creole. One of the most noticeable examples of this is the Jamaican “rounded schwa.”*

Jamaican Creole largely lacks the schwa, that little “throwaway” vowel in words like “comma,” “afraid” or (in non-rhotic accents) “father.” Instead, Creole speakers often use the same vowel as “trap,” so that “bother” is bada and “better” is beta.

By contrast, many “Jamaican English” speakers go in the other direction and use rounded vowels in schwa positions that we wouldn’t normally associate with roundedness. So for instance, in A Handbook of Varieties of English, Hubert Devonish and Otelemate G. Harry mention ’comma’ being pronounced kɔmo (“commaw”).

One can hear plenty examples of this in the inauguration speech of Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller earlier this year. For instance, around the 19-second mark Simpson-Mill pronounces “former prime minister” so the last word sounds to many Americans like “ministaw:”

I would say that Miller’s “rounded schwa” is actually a set of different allophones, not just o, but also phones like ʊ, ɵ, and ɔ (I’d need a few more listens to confirm). It would be very interesting to chart the course of this unusual variant: is it due to dissociation alone? Or is there some other reason it entered Jamaican English?

*I’m not expecting any awards for “best new sociophonetics term” here. Schwa has two definitions, in a way: there’s schwa the IPA symbol/phone (ə), which refers to a mid-central vowel of indeterminate roundedness. Then there is schwa the concept, which basically refers to a class of reduced/unstressed vowels. When I’m talking about “rounded schwa” here, I’m building upon the latter definition.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to “Prime Ministaw:” Jamaican Rounded Schwa

  1. I bet a look at elementary schools would tell you something about how people think they should speak. Just like kids come out of American elementary school thinking “I should always say X and I”, Jamaican kids might think “I should round every vowel.”

    On a personal note, when I was in Jamaica I had the bizarre experience of understanding everything everyone said to me (a white foreigner), but nothing people said to each other (fellow Jamaicans). Even proper names took me a while to understand, the vowel shifts were so pronounced (the Swept Away resort become Swee-ipt Awee-uh)

  2. D Sky Onosson says:

    I’m finding it hard to hear this as “rounding”. I’ve watched it several times and her lips appear particularly spread when pronouncing this vowel, not round. The sound to me seems quite simliar to the Korean vowel usually transcribed as “eo” as in the first syllable of Seoul (which is a two-syllable word in Korean), analyzed by Ho-Min Sohn in Camridge Language Surveys: The Korean Language as a mid-back unround vowel. You can hear an example in this YouTube video at about the 6:44 mark http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdiR-6e1h0o which to my ears is very similar to the Jamaican example.

    • Hjalmarsson says:

      Well, you’re talking about articulatory phonetics whereas Trawick is talking about auditory phonetics. I agree with you that she doesn’t round her lips very much during the vowel at the end of minister, but I have read that what we (well specifically phoneticians actually) hear as a “rounded” vowel may not always have the expected position of the lips.

      • D Sky Onosson says:

        Aside from the visual / articulatory aspect, I still find it hard to hear it as rounding. What really struck me right away was the similarity to Korean “eo”, hence the link I posted.

    • Hjalmarsson says:

      Well…okay.

      • D Sky Onosson says:

        Do you disagree? I could certainly be wrong, this is just my perception of it. I’ve never noticed on any greater degree of rounding among my Jamaican friends’ speech, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur.

      • Hjalmarsson says:

        I do hear it as rounded, but I agree that her lips don’t look rounded. We have different perceptions. That’s fine. Even trained phoneticians often disagree with each other when it comes to these things (or maybe you are a trained phonetician, I don’t know). It’s just that I’ve read that “roundedness” is a certain auditory quality that doesn’t necessarily involve visible rounding of the lips. And I’ve also read, more generally, that speakers of various languages may use different articulations to get what phoneticians hear as the same sound. Whether these things apply in this specific situation, however, I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately, but I don’t know if this was the right time or place to mention it :)

    • @D Sky,

      Simpson-Miller isn’t entirely consistent with this feature; I can hear it at certain times when she says “professor,” but other uses of word have an unrounded schwa. I agree with you that at points this vowel is akin to Korean /eo/ or /eu/, but I do think there is at least some vowel compression at points (i.e. the corners of the mouth and lips are pulled close together, but the lips can still appear spread). Regardless, you suggest a good point, which is that backness and/or closeness are arguably as important to this set of allophones as roundedness.

      @Hjalmarsson,

      It’s true that perceptions of roundedness and unroundedness can be hazy with the back vowels. An oft-cited example is the /ɒ/ in British RP, which for many speakers is not technically a rounded vowel, but separated from /ɑ/ by a unique tongue configuration. Still, I believe roundedness works as a way of distinguishing certain vowels from one another, even if it’s just shorthand.

      • Hjalmarsson says:

        ” Still, I believe roundedness works as a way of distinguishing certain vowels from one another, even if it’s just shorthand.”

        Oh it definitely does and no one’s saying otherwise. Just look at the French words su [sy] and si [si]. They are distinguished solely by lip rounding. I was just saying that I’ve read academic papers that said there can be a disconnect between the vowel quality that phoneticians hear and the actual articulation that is used by the speaker to produce that quality.

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