What is schwa /ə/???
In this lesson, English language learners learn about schwa /ə/, the most common vowel sound in American English pronunciation. Schwa is shown as /ə/ in most dictionaries and occurs on unstressed syllables in many multi-syllable words.
The reduced vowel sound called schwa /ə/ is the most common vowel sound in spoken English. Schwa is a quick, relaxed, neutral vowel pronunciation.
(See schwa lesson.)
Dictionaries represent schwa with an upside-down e: /ə/.
Schwa does not have a single pronunciation. Instead, the sound produced for schwa varies between a short u (/ʌ/), short i (/ɪ/), and a short e (/ɛ/). Most commonly, the short u sound is used for schwa in American English pronunciation.
The reduced vowel sound, schwa, occurs in two different circumstances:
- in an unstressed syllable of a multi-syllable word.
- as a reduced vowel sound of a function word
This video covers schwa as a reduced syllable of a multi-syllable word. Schwa: Part II will cover schwa as a reduced syllable in a function word.
In words with more than one syllable, not every syllable is given equal emphasis. Let's look at an example word: emphasize.
Three levels of syllable stress are possible: stressed, secondarily stressed, and unstressed. Every multi-syllable word has a single stressed syllable. That syllable is given the most emphasis in the word. The remainder of the syllables may have a secondary stress or may be unstressed.
The vowel sound in unstressed syllables is usually reduced to schwa. Stressed and secondarily stressed syllables are not reduced.
The purpose of schwa is to allow unstressed syllables to occur more quickly so the main beats of spoken words are easier to place on the stressed syllables.
Because schwa is a function of syllable stress and not of spelling, many multi-syllable words do not seem to be pronounced as they are spelled. However, once learners can recognize stressed syllables it becomes easier to predict when schwa will be used in an adjacent, unstressed syllable, regardless of the spelling.
Let's look at some examples. (The stressed syllable is marked in capital letters, the reduced syllables are underlined. Notice that the stressed syllable is the most emphasized syllable of the word, and that the schwa occurs quickly, and sounds most similar to the short u sound (short u).
a spelling: a-GAIN, VIT-a-min
e spelling: e-LEC-tric, CEL-e-brate
i spelling: PRES-i-dent, ex-PER-i-ment
o spelling: oc-CUR, con-DI-tion
u spelling: um-BREL-la, sup-PORT
It is important to note that some dictionaries do not use distinct transcription symbols for schwa and short u (/ʌ/). When this is the case, it can be assumed that the schwa symbol should be pronounced as a short u sound. See your dictionary's key to determine the symbols for schwa and short u.
Some words commonly transcribed as schwa and pronounced with a short u sound, are:
The vowel sound in many prefixes that include the letter e is reduced to schwa in casual speech. Notice the difference between the dictionary's citation form and the commonly reduced form of the prefixes be-, re-, pre-, and de-. The reduced form occurs more quickly and uses a more relaxed tongue. Schwa is common in many prefixes because prefixes are seldom stressed in English words.
Many dictionaries will not show the reduced form of these words, instead showing the full long e pronunciation. I will say the dictionary's citation form first, then the casual reduced form. I will also use the word in a sentence.
be, begin - begin: Class begins in an hour.
re, return - return: Please return the library book.
pre, precise - precise: the precise cause was never found.
de, detach - detach: Detach the safety switch before operating.
Changing the nature of a vowel sound from the dictionary's citation form to schwa is common in spoken English. Certain grammatical words called function words are even more likely to use this technique. Video lesson Schwa, Part 2, will cover reducing the vowel sound in function words.
The reduced vowel sound schwa is a difficult concept in pronunciation. Understanding schwa is important to predict a word's pronunciation, as well as to provide contrast to stressed syllables. Dictionaries are not consistent in the transcription of schwa and in comparison with the short u sound. Individual users will need to learn the key for their personal dictionaries.