Some time last week, Jeopardy had a “Phonetics”, and we know it’s an obscure topic for most of the educated world because it was in a Double Jeopardy round for a Tournament of Champions (prelim round).
The most interesting question was something like this
Question: The word agency contains the most common sound in the English language. What is this sound?
I admit I missed this one, because the answer was supposed to be schwa /ə/ (say what?). Pondering, this I think I found a quirk in my dialect
First, where did the Jeopardy schwa come from? Probably from actual pronuciatiion. In many dialects of English (certainly U.S. English) many unstressed vowels are changed to schwa. Hence a word like piña kolada which is pronounced as /piña kolada/ in Spanish usually emerges as something like [piñə kəladə] in English (with 3 schwas). This is why schwa is probably the most common vowel. Even in my dialect agency is something like [ejǰɛnsi] or [ejǰɨnsi]
But why did I miss it? Here’s my phonemic transcription of agency – /eiǰɛnsi/. You’ll note that there is no schwa in there because in my mental dictionary, I don’t think of this “e” vowel as a schwa, but as the same vowel as in sense /sɛns/.
Similarly I think that agent rhymes with gent /ǰɛnt/ (or at least pretty close). On the other hand, I don’t think agent rhymes with hunt /hʌnt/ or /hənt/. So even though I know about the proliferation of schwas, I really didn’t think it was in this word. For me, it’s not the same status as the schwa in the [ðə] or a [ə]
However, I may be the quirky one here.
For instance, I did find that the Oxford English Dictionary transcribes agency as [eiǰənsi] with the schwa [ə]. I also found one rhyming dictionary (http://www.rhymer.com/RhymingDictionary/agent.html) which does identify agent and hunt as rhymes.
On the other hand, WikiRhymer is matching agent with magenta (definitely a /ɛ/ in the second syllable), so maybe it’s not just me. Since none of the contestants detected the schwa, I am wondering if they had the same computational problem I did.
Thinking about my dialect, I suspect that my difference in perception partly because because I can distinguish [ə] (first vowel of Alissa) from [ɨ] (first vowel of Ilisa). As far as I can tell though, this happens only in a narrow band in the urban northeast, and other speakers have only [ə]. And the Jeopardy writers are working in California (heavy schwa territory).
Fortunately, descriptive linguistics, unlike Jeopardy, doesn’t always have to have one right answer.