161: Schwa in 2-syllable words

The importance of tiny syllables!


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 161st episode.

In words with more than one syllable, not every syllable is given equal emphasis; one syllable is "stressed." The stressed syllable is said louder, for more time, and often at a higher pitch than the other syllables of a word. When learning a new vocabulary word, it's always a good idea to identify the stressed syllable of that word, because, as you will see, we can't understand the phonics of a word until we know where the stressed syllable is. This is because a stressed syllable controls all the other syllables of a word. Today we're going to focus on the syllable next to the stressed syllable. Why? Because of a concept called "schwa." Schwa is a quick reduced vowel sound that is often pronounced similar to a quick short u sound. Schwa occurs most often on an unstressed syllable that is next to a stressed syllable. If I don't know where the stressed syllable of a word is, I won't know how to find schwa.

In addition to stressed syllables and syllables reduced to schwa, there are also secondarily stressed syllables, but I'm going to save that topic for another episode.

Before I continue, let me remind you that you can find the transcript for this episode by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Also, we'll link to the Pronuncian.com lesson regarding schwa from this episode's transcript page. So if you want to learn more, that's the place to go!

When a syllable is stressed, it's really only the vowel portion of the syllable that is stressed. So, when we talk about syllable stress, we're going to focus on the vowel sound. In a multi-syllable word, the vowel sound of the stressed syllable is the most likely syllable to be phonetic. In other words, that syllable is the most likely to be pronounced how we expect based on its spelling. This makes the pronunciation more predictable. What happens to the other syllables? Well, this is where schwa comes into the picture.

The reduced vowel sound, schwa, usually sounds like a very quick short u sound (short u), and, as I said, it usually occurs on syllables adjacent to the stressed syllable of a word. The thing to understand is that it can have any spelling, though the letters a, o, and u are the most likely to sound closest to a short u.

To begin with, let's listen to a few 2-syllable nouns, then a few 2-syllable verbs. There is a general pattern that 2-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable, and 2-syllable verbs are stressed on the second syllable. This general pattern works for between 80% and 90% of the 2-syllable nouns and verbs in English. To keep it simple today, we'll only look at words that follow this pattern.

Let's begin with nouns. Each of these nouns are stressed on the first syllable. The vowel sound of the second syllable of these words is reduced to a very quick (schwa), no matter how that vowel is spelled. Listen closely. I'll say the word as a whole unit first, then I'll break it in to syllables, then I'll say the whole word again:

problem, prob-lem, problem
wisdom, wis-dom, wisdom
salad, sal-ad, salad
custom, cus-tom, custom
system, sys-tem, system
method, meth-od, method
balance, bal-ance, balance
circus, cir-cus, circus

And here are some 2-syllable verbs. We've chosen words that all follow the pattern of being stressed on the second syllable. I'll say these words in the same pattern of the whole word, then by syllable, and then as the whole word again:

provide, pro-vide, provide
complete, com-plete, complete
observe, ob-serve, observe
assume, a-ssume, assume
succeed, suc-ceed, succeed
agree, a-gree, agree
compare, com-pare, compare
contain, con-tain, contain

Schwa is a part of pronunciation that my students have a hard time trusting. It seems unnatural to allow the vowel sound to be so small in these words. Practice pronouncing these words using that very tiny (schwa) in the unstressed syllables. Learn what it sounds like and what it feels like. That way, when we have a word that breaks the rules, a word like tattoo that has no reduced syllables, you can trust what you're hearing, and then you can trust what you're saying.

To help you, I'm going to say the 2-syllable nouns and verbs that we used as examples one more time. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.

Here are the nouns:


And here are the verbs:


To learn more about schwa, and for more practice using it, consider purchasing a copy of Pronunciation Pages 2. In addition to the schwa lesson, this book also includes exercises to help you practice schwa in 2-syllable and 3-syllable words. Pronuncian subscribers have access to these same exercises from the schwa lesson wen logged into their account. Find out how to purchase your copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 or how to join Pronuncian by going to www.pronuncian.com/products or click "Join Pronuncian" on Pronuncian.com.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.