From time to time I receive queries from classroom teachers there which reflect the fact that like all teachers they want a clear defined set of facts to teach, whereas we academics who train them and who write about the language tend to be conscious of the chaotic nature of the real world, in describing which any generalization has to be qualified by uncertainties and indeterminacies.
María Inés Orge asks about the usage of the schwa symbol in words like trouble and people.
The first option given in the phonetic dictionary of each word is with schwa while the the second is not. They are considered “optionals”. “Optional”,according to the dictionary, means “something you do not have to do or use, but you can choose to if you want to”.
She wants to know, then,
During a dictation of phonetics, can the option ə be considered as a mistake? Is it possible to take the sound between b and l or p and l completely out? Can I really choose the option or not?
I told her
Both pronunciations are possible. But on any given occasion the schwa is either there or not there.
It is perhaps clearest in cases like garden. If there is no schwa between the d and the n (the usual pronunciation) then the tongue remains in contact with the alveolar ridge as we move from d to n, and the only change is the movement of the soft palate, which comes down to allow the air to explode through the nose. If, on the other hand, the tongue tip leaves the alveolar ridge at the end of d and then returns to the alveolar ridge for the n, then there is a schwa between the two consonants.
In marking dictation, it is for you to decide your policy. I would not penalize presence/absence of schwa between a fricative or an affricate and n or l (as in listen, heaven, kitchen; oval, puzzle, satchel), but might penalize it after a plosive (as in happen, garden, organ; apple, middle, eagle), where the difference is perceptually more salient.
On the other hand you could decide not to penalize this at all, since the two possibilities (i) schwa plus sonorant and (ii) syllabic sonorant are phonologically equivalent. Barring marginal cases, there are no pairs of words distinguished only by this difference.
The “marginal cases” I was thinking of would be, for example, BrE ˈpætən, ˈbɪtən (pattern, bittern) vs. ˈpætn̩, ˈbɪtn̩ (Patton, bitten), which a few non-rhotic speakers may have as minimal pairs, although they are normally homophonous for me as ˈpætn̩, ˈbɪtn̩. Compare also modern as a rhyme (or not) for trodden.
I could have continued by mentioning the likelihood, these days, of l-vocalization in trouble, people and other words shown in the dictionary as having “əl”. If we represent the output of vocalization conventionally as o, that gives ˈtrʌbo, ˈpiːpo. In a transcription exercise (orthography to phonetics) I would be delighted to see these forms (particularly if phrase-final, or if the next word begins with a consonant sound). In a dictation exercise, however, I would not consider them correct if I had actually uttered l̩ (i.e. ˈtrʌbɫ etc). In the general scheme of things, though, this would count as a very minor error. People who fail phonetic dictation do so because of multiple gross errors, not because of subtleties such as worry María.
Remember, though, that optional symbols in the dictionary should not be shown as optional in these practical exercises. They should either be there or not be there. Their inclusion in the dictionary is an abbreviatory convention. In real-life performance nothing is optional. You either do it or you don’t.