ə – If you’ve ever wondered what this peculiar looking little symbol is, you are probably not alone. It is a phonetic symbol for the most common vowel sound in English! It is called ‘schwa’ and it is heard EVERYWHERE in English. So even if you didn’t know what it was called or where it is used you are nevertheless using it all the time when you speak English. Let’s have a look at this ubiquitous sound.
As a vowel sound /ə/ is produced by keeping your mouth and tongue in a neutral centred position. It is unstressed and is very well represented in the word ‘about’ as the letter ‘a’. The letter ‘a’ in elephant is another example of a great ‘schwa’. It is sometimes joked that if your dentist anaesthetized your entire mouth including your tongue so that nothing could be felt or moved, you would only be able to produce a schwa. It demands the absolute least of its speakers making it the least challenging of sounds. All you really have to do is just activate your vocal chords. But please don’t try anesthetizing yourself at home.
Also do not be misled into believing that schwa always manifests itself in writing as the letter ‘a’ as illustrated above. Not true.
It can appear as:
- the letter ‘e’ as in ‘shaken’
- the letter ‘i’ as in ‘pencil’
- the letter ‘o’ as in ‘temporary’
- the letter ‘u’ as in ‘truffle’
- the letter ‘y’ as in ‘syringe’
- digraphs such as the ‘ai’ in ‘fountain’
- and even unwritten as in the second syllable of ‘able’
The effect schwa has at the word level is remarkable and is the reason why learners of English have difficulty believing the actual pronunciation of words like vegetable and comfortable. These are long words where only the first syllable is stressed and therefore all of the subsequent syllables become schwas. So rather than; /ve ʤe teɪ bʌl/ it becomes /veʤətəbəl/
Schwa is the reason why ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ have the exact same pronunciation. ‘Complement’ and ‘Compliment’ have the same pronunciation as well even though they are differently spelt! The reason in the case of both of these examples is the ‘schwa’.
Effect/affect – word stress is on the second syllable so both the ‘e’ and ‘a’ of the first syllable are schwas. Therefore the words sound the same.
Complement/ compliment – The word stress is on the first syllable so the ‘e’ and the ‘i’ of the second syllable are just the same.
The vowel sound in certain syllables can become so weak that they are even deleted in spoken English! Think about really naturally speech and what happens to these words;
- Different = /dɪfrent/
- Separate = /seprɪt/
- Caramel = /karmel/
The schwa-syllable often gets deleted causing a lot of confusion among learners of English. Where do those letters go when we say the word?
What about the sentence level?
As an example take the sentence: I’m going to go to the store today. There are many schwas in this sentence. All of these little one syllable words like ‘to’ and ‘the’ are very weak and are therefore reduced to schwas as their dominant vowel sound /tə ðə/ but even the first syllable of ‘today’ is very weak so one doesn’t say /tu: dei/ but rather /tədeɪ/. To drive home this pronunciation phenomenon I have even seen teachers write the sentence:
I’M gonna GO t’ d’ STORE t’day.
This is extreme but it shows learners what words are stressed or convey important meaning and which words become reduced to very weak schwas.
We are starting to move into the topic of English being a stress-timed language which is a very big topic and the topic of a whole blog itself. Basically some languages are syllable-timed and some are stress-timed. English, being a stress-timed language, when spoken faster causes the time between stressed syllables to be shortened or quickened. This is how schwas were created.
So in closing I hope you can see how important this sound is and maybe it will have positive subconscious effects on your pronunciation. Do not be afraid of schwas. Embrace them and in fact you should even aspire to be more like them if you would like to have a fun and relaxing life because SCHWAS NEVER HAVE ANY STRESS.
UBIQUITOUS – found everywhere, omnipresent
ANESTHETIC – a medicine which takes away feeling in your body at the muscular and nerve level