125: Unstressed syllables, part 1

Schwa: the most important weak vowel sound.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 125th episode.

It's been a while since I've talked about schwa, and since it's been an active topic in the English Assembly forums lately, it seems like a good time to revisit it in a podcast.

Let's review: what is schwa, and how do we pronounce it?

At its simplest, schwa is a weak, unstressed vowel sound. It most frequently occurs adjacent to stressed syllables, and its pronunciation is very, very close to that of a short u sound. The short u is the vowel sound in the word sun (short u).

If that were all there was to say about unstressed vowel sounds, schwa would be very easy to understand. But, we're talking about English, and so nobody should be surprised when I say that it's actually not that simple.

First, let me say that schwa isn't the only sound we use in an unstressed vowel sound position. The short i (short i) is also sometimes weak, and also commonly occurs adjacent to a stressed syllable. I'm going to talk more about that in our next episode.

Next, let's get confusion about dictionary transcriptions out of the way. Schwa is transcribed in pretty much every dictionary as an upside-down letter e. This, at least is consistent. However, some dictionaries will also use the schwa symbol for the short u sound. If your dictionary does this, you should understand that schwa and short u are very nearly identical in pronunciation; you can assume that whenever you see an upside-down e, you will use the vowel sound of the word sun, (short u). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and OxfordDictionaries.com both use this transcription system.

On the other hand, the online version of the Cambridge Dictionary of American English uses separate symbols for schwa and short u. So if you look at that dictionary, you will see the upside-down v in the transcription of the word sun. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary also uses separate symbols, and while it says that schwa must always be weak, short u is given as an example of a strong vowel. I think this distinction is important, and that is one of the reasons that the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary is my favorite dictionary, but it only exists in print form.

An understanding of schwa as a weak vowel is so important for two reasons:

  • it allows non-native speakers to better predict the pronunciation of a word from its spelling
  • the rhythm of English relies on unstressed syllables as much as stressed syllables

Over-pronouncing unstressed syllables leads to choppy speech and it can fatigue your listeners because they'll be forced to adjust what they're hearing to what they expected to hear.

Let's look at some words in which the letters a and o fall on unstressed syllables and are reduced to schwa. We're listening to the letters a and o because the change from their common pronunciations is the most predictable and the most dramatic.

If I say these words with a strong and stressed vowel sounds instead of an unstressed vowel sound, it becomes very difficult to distinguish which syllable is stressed. As listeners, we rely on syllable stress for comprehension; it is a major clue as to which word we are hearing.

Listen to the following sentence, which I'll say without using schwa:

The company's manager advocated abandoning the potential proposal and provided assistance finding alternatives.

Here it is again:

The company's manager advocated abandoning the potential proposal and provided assistance finding alternatives.

If the words of that sentence are said individually and incorrectly, they are not so hard to understand. It is when they are all strung together that we lose comprehension.

Here were words with a reduced letter o (reduced vowels are underlined):

advocate, which I pronounced *advocate (advocate, *advocate)
potential, which I pronounced *potential (potential, *potential)
provide, which I pronounced *provide (provide, *provide)

Here were words with a reduced letter a (reduced vowels are underlined):

company, which I pronounced *company (company, *company)
manager, which I pronounced *manager (manager, *manager)
assistance, which I pronounced *assistance (assistance, *assistance)
alternatives, which I pronounced *alternatives (alternatives, *alternatives)

And the following words have both a reduced o and a reduced a (reduced vowels are underlined):

abandoning, which I pronounced *abandoning (abandoning, *abandoning)
proposal, which I pronounced *proposal (proposal, *proposal)

To make those all more clear, I've underlined the reduced syllables in the transcripts.

Here is that whole incorrect sentence again:

The company's manager advocated abandoning the potential proposal and provided assistance finding alternatives.

And here it is said fluently and correctly:

The company's manager advocated abandoning the potential proposal and provided assistance finding alternatives.

I hope this helps make it clear that schwa is important, not just for having less of an accent, but so your listeners can better understand you.

A great way to practice hearing the rhythm of English as schwa is to listen to and repeat a native speaker. A more entertaining way of doing that is to listen to an audiobook. You can get a free audiobook by signing up for a free 14-day trial of Audible.com through Pronuncian.com. Just go to www.pronuncian.com/audible for more details. Don't worry, even if you cancel your subscription before the 14 days is up, the free audiobook you chose is yours to keep forever!

As always, transcripts for this show are available on our website. Just go to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

And one last thing, don't forget about our English Assembly forums. There are lots of interesting conversations going on there. It is free to join in and ask questions or offer your own insights and answers. It all works together to keep these free podcasts coming to you. So please, join our learning community.

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

Thanks for listening.