In considering words with -er ending like "quandary" /ˈkwɑːn.dəɹɪ/, it seems like to me there is no difference between that IPA /ˈkwɑːn.dəɹɪ/ and /ˈkwɑːn.d.ɹɪ/, or "quand-ree". The [r] is like "rrrr" straight from the [d], as in "drrr".

There is a difference between those and "quandry", like "foundry", where the d and r blend together. But I don't know if there is a difference between /ˈkwɑːn.dəɹɪ/ and /ˈkwɑːn.d.ɹɪ/ ("quand-ree"). That [ə] seems like it is purely an orthography thing, which is spilling over into the IPA structure. But it is a silent a/u/e in the different words it appears in in English IMO, like "hurry" or "worry", those are basically "hrry" and "wrry". A word like "very" you actually do have an extra vowel between the r and the other letter, /ˈvɛɹi/ with "ai-rr" in there, not just a straight "rrrr".

It seems like the [ə] is added in the IPA purely because of the rules for syllabification in English perhaps (which I don't know much about), because if [h], [r], and [y] aren't vowels, then "hrry" can't be a grammatically correct word. But phonologically speaking, to me there is not actually an [ə] in between the [d] and [r] in "quandary".

But there also seems to be a few subtle variations in the way you could pronounce "quandary".

  1. "quan-dery", with the d separated from the first syllable.
  2. "quand-ery", with the d as part of the first syllable.

In (1), it seems clear there is no [ə] between the [d] and [r], but at the same time it is not a strait "drrr" blend. Instead there is a shift between the [d] and [r].

In (2), it seems it could go either way. You are essentially starting a fresh word by saying "errr". The question is if it is "errr" or "rrr". If I forcefully pronounce just "rrr", it starts of smooth. If I pronounce the more natural "errr", then it starts of with a "pop". The "pop" it seems is the reason for the [ə].

But instead of the [ə] you could do some sort of thing that is intermediate between a blend and a glottal stop, which I don't know how to properly do with IPA. But maybe it would be like "'rrr", instead of "ʔrrr" or "ərrr". So the scale of pausing between the [d] and [r] would be drrr -> d'rrr -> dʔrrr, the "dʔrrr" being something that isn't really related to the "quandary" word. So then it would be /ˈkwɑːn.d'ɹɪ/.

So the question is if that [ə] in fact doesn't exist in the pronunciation, and it is instead carried over from the spelling/orthography of English words. And instead it is just some sort of syllabification of the [r], as well as a micro separation between the [d] and [r]. It seems that instead of "'rrr", you could do just the same writing it /ɹ̩/, or perhaps /'ɹ̩/ to capture both the "start r with a pop" and the syllabification. So we end up with /ˈkwɑːn.d'ɹ̩ɪ/.

Wondering if this is true, or what I am missing.

If the [ə] was "really" there, then I would pronounce it "quand-uh-rrrr-ee", like "quanduhrry", because the pronunciation of the [ə] is different from a straight "rrr" sound, or even from the pop at the beginning of the "errr" sound. It would be more like "uhrrrr".

Another word that seems to have this feature is significant. In speech you might pronounce it "sgnificant", or even "sgnificnt", or yet! "sgnifknt", where there is no vowel really between the [s] and [g], it's more like /sg/. Here since they can't blend (doesn't seem possible), you don't even need the pop symbol, as in /s'g/.

The word "elementary" doesn't even have this feature, it is more like "foundry", as in "elementry", but you can pronounce it if you want as "element'rry".

  • 1
    What's the source saying there is a schwa, and what dialect information does it say?
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 26 '18 at 0:43
  • I got that from en.wiktionary.org/wiki/quandary. Sep 26 '18 at 1:00
  • As I mentioned, numerous dictionaries indicate schwa, and indicate optionality of schwa.
    – user6726
    Sep 26 '18 at 1:11
  • Well there it is! . Syllabic r. Sep 26 '18 at 7:34

There really is, or really isn't, depending on the speaker. The OUP entry indicates that the schwa in "quandary" is optional for both UK and US English. The US token is pronounced with no schwa, the UK token is pronounced with one. Two versions of Jones' dictionary indicate a vowel, the Macmillan dictionary writes obligatory schwa but the recorded (US) token has no schwa, and the Websters site writes optional schwa, and the associated recording is hard to tell (those speakers over-articulate: it's not different from "laundry"). Similarly, some people have a schwa between θ and l in "athlete:, and some don't.

My recommendation is to carry a recorder with you at all times (wear a sign saying that you are taping everything, so as to not run afoul of the law), and later transcribe a day or two's worth of spontaneous speech. You may learn that 1 out of 5 tokens of your pronunciation of "quandary" has a schwa. On the other hand, everybody is capable of speech errors, so it's hard to know if an unusual token is an error or a rare variant. In this case, I think there is a US/UK factor to the difference. But it is not strict: the Forvo repository suggests that it's random. It's actually rather amazing how variable pronunciations of words are even within US English and not including known dialect features.

  • Good advice, sounds like an interesting thing to do. On a side note, a big part of the question I was wondering about is if this means that we can write the [r] as a syllabic consonant, and how we annotate the difference between blending (with drrr) and shifting (with d'rrr). Sep 26 '18 at 2:56

In my dialect of American English, [r] becomes an obstruent (fricative) after [t], [d] in the same syllable, as in "dream", "drive", "trick", "trivial". This does not happen when schwa precedes the [r], or when the [r] is syllabic (which is approximately the same thing).

So, listen to the "r" in "quandary". If it's a fricative (and your dialect is like mine), that suggests there is no schwa intervening between [d] and [r]. Otherwise, there is.

It might also be interesting to observe the roundness of the [r], since [r] in the onset of a syllable is ordinarily rounded, suggesting there is no schwa, but in the offset of a syllable and unstressed, [r] is unrounded, suggesting there is a preceding schwa.

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