Podcast 209: The difference between /ə/ and /ʌ/: schwa and short u

What's up with /ə/ and /ʌ/ in words like 'custom' /ˈkʌs təm/?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 209th episode.

I received a great question from a listener named Victoria about the difference between schwa /ə/, and short u /ʌ/. Victoria wrote:

Hi, I am kind of confused by schwa sound and short u sound. Both of them have the same symbol (upside down letter e) for pronunciation. How do I know what words I should pronounce schwa sound or short u sound when I look at the dictionary? Like "duck" and "sun", the symbols in the dictionary are upside down letter e. I know it's pronounced short u sound. But some people from Asia pronounce schwa sound because the symbol is the same as schwa. I don't know how to explain why it should pronounced with short u sound, and why not with schwa. Could you please help me with the question! Thanks!

This is an excellent question, Victoria, and I certainly understand your confusion. First, let me give some background for those of you who aren't familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, known as the IPA. The IPA are those symbols that dictionaries use to show how to pronounce a word. There are two symbols that are important for today's discussion, the upside-down letter e, and the upside-down letter v. It sounds like the dictionary Victoria is referring to only uses the upside-down letter e.

Watch our  schwa video  for ESL/ELL students learning English pronunciation

Watch our schwa video for ESL/ELL students learning English pronunciation

Generally, I prefer dictionaries that use both the upside-down e and the upside-down v because of exactly the question Victoria has! In dictionaries that use both symbols, the upside-down e is the symbol for schwa and the upside-down v is the short u symbol. These are the symbols we use on Pronuncian.com and Cambridge Dictionaries Online is an example of an online dictionary with this notation.

So why do some dictionaries do it one way, and some the other way? Well, it has to do with how these sounds are similar and how they're different.

Let's start with how they're similar. Schwa and short u are alike in the shape of the mouth and in what the sound actually sounds like. They both sound like (uh). Listen for the two (uh) sounds in the word custom, custom.

In the word custom, c-u-s-t-o-m, the vowel sound in the first and the second syllable is the same. In both cases, it's (uh): cus-tom. However, there is a difference, and the difference is syllable stress. The first syllable is stressed in the word custom, and the sound is a short u sound.

The second syllable is reduced in the word custom. The reduced vowel sound is said for much less time than the stressed syllable and is often also not as loud or at as high of a pitch. In addition to that, knowing which syllable is reduced to schwa is how we know that the letter o of the second syllable is probably not going to be pronounced as (short o) or (long o) or (aw sound). It's the syllable directly next to the stressed syllable, so there's a good chance it'll be a quick, reduced (uh), known as schwa.

Listen carefully to the following five words. Listen for the unstressed and stressed syllable in each word. If you're reading the transcripts, you'll also see the International Phonetic Alphabet after each word. The IPA includes a notation of which syllable is stressed and pronounced with a short u, and which syllable is reduced and pronounced as schwa.

custom /ˈkʌs təm/
fungus /ˈfʌŋ ɡəs/
onion /ˈʌn jən/
succumb /sə ˈkʌm/
conduct (verb form) /kən ˈdʌkt/

Listen again to the word custom: custom. The word custom has two syllables, the first one stressed, and the second one reduced. The (uh) of the first syllable is said for more time than the (uh) of the second syllable. Listen again: custom.

In the word conduct, the stressed syllable is switched. The first syllable is reduced and the second is stressed. The rhythm of the word custom is different than the rhythm of the word conduct: custom, conduct. Hopefully you can hear in words like custom and conduct that the vowel in the first syllable is not exactly like the vowel sound in the other syllable and this difference changes the overall rhythm of spoken English.

So yes, it is true that schwa and short u have the same shape in the mouth and that the sound is essentially the same. However, the main difference between the sounds is duration. The short u, despite that horrible name of short, is said for more time than schwa.

But what about single-syllable words like the words duck and sun, from Victoria's question? Well, this is rather simple. When a word has only one syllable, we can assume that it's stressed. So the version of the IPA that pronuncian.com and Cambridge Dictionaries Online use will show the vowel sound in those words as the upside-down v, also called short u by me.

Now, let's practice. I'm going to say those five words I used as examples again, leaving time for you to repeat after me. Notice which syllable of the word is stressed, and adjust the length of your vowel sounds appropriately. You want a difference between schwa and short u.

Ready? Here we go!

custom /ˈkʌs təm/
fungus /ˈfʌŋ ɡəs/
onion /ˈʌn jən/
succumb /sə ˈkʌm/
conduct (verb form) /kən ˈdʌkt/

If you want more listen-and-repeat practice, our textbook, Pronunciation Pages 2, has hours and hours and hours of practice. It also includes a lesson on schwa to help you understand the concept of reduced syllables better. You can purchase a physical copy of the book or download the PDF version with MP3 audio from pronuncian.com. Just go to www.pronuncian.com and click "Products."

Pronuncian.com is also where you can find transcripts for this episode, as well as all of our past podcast episodes. Just click the "Podcasts" link.

If you have any pronunciation questions that you'd like me to discuss in a podcast, get in touch with us on social media! You can find us on Twitter or Facebook. Just search for pronuncian, spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n. You can also email us at podcast@p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com.

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. Bye-bye!