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I have seen lately many questions related to the pronunciation of the schwa (ə) sound. Today, I again found this question, What exactly is the "schwa" sound?, at EL&U, so I wanted to ask how the 'schwa' sound is pronounced.

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What words would this even be included in? The only word I can think of is 'swastika' and the name 'schwab'. –  user3569 Dec 18 '13 at 2:05
@Keavon This question is about the vowel sound referred to using the word schwa, not about the word itself. The schwa is the most common vowel in English. –  snailboat Dec 18 '13 at 3:10
I see. You learn something every day :) –  user3569 Dec 18 '13 at 3:48
Schwa is a term taken from Hebrew. I'm a bit astonished that this exotic term is used so often for indefinite vowel. –  rogermue Jun 1 at 20:42

4 Answers 4

up vote 29 down vote accepted

I believe that schwa (ə) is something a bit mysterious to many ELLs. The number of questions here, at EL&U, and around the web seems to indicate so. If you are learning English as a second language, and your language has no such concept as schwa, I hope my answer may help you a little.

If you look up words in dictionary, soon you will find this "inverted e" character, ə. Then you soon may come to learn that this strange-looking character is called schwa. Then soon, you may get confused because different dictionaries seem to transcribe this schwa sound differently. But more importantly, you usually find that native speakers do not pronounce those words exactly the same way they are written in dictionaries. Or at least, to you, it appears so. For example, from a question on our site:

The news caster pronounces ‘superior’ as /səˈpɪər i ər/. And I can find his pronunciation in the Random House Dictionary. But the other major dictionaries show /suːˈpɪriər/ or /sjuːˈpɪəriə/.

In spoken English, according to linguists and many researchers, when vowel sounds are sorted by number of occurrences, the schwa sound will be at the top of the chart, so it is very important for ELLs to learn how to hear and how to pronounce this schwa sound properly. (You can find an example of results of such researches here.)

My tips for dealing with the schwa sound in listening

Remember that many vowels in English, when being pronounced unstressed, will generally shift toward the center vowel, the schwa (ə).

Knowing which syllables and which words to stress is very important in spoken English. And, because the stress at word level is rather fixed, dictionaries usually transcribe the majority, if not all, of unstressed syllables as schwa (ə). (Actually, there are much more subtle details. For example, most modern dictionaries will also transcribe some of these unstressed syllables as /ɪ/, but that deserves a different question.)

Now you might wonder why I call "schwa" the center vowel.

The answer is because it is THE center vowel. Or, to be more technically precise, schwa is the mid-central vowel. If you look at the IPA chart below, you will see that the schwa sits exactly in the middle of the chart.

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In English, when the sound of any other vowel is reduced to its weak form, the sound will be shifted toward this center sound, the schwa (ə) sound. (There are exceptions such as the short "i" sound (e.g. bit, spit) which is transcribed as /ɪ/ in dictionaries, or other unstressed syllables of what you may think they should be pronounced as /e/ or /i/ (e.g. the second syllable in helipad, or the first syllables believe) which will be pronounced as /ɪ/ rather than the schwa sound by some speakers.)

Most of unstressed vowels of function words (words such as the, to, on, can, and so on) will be reduced to a schwa. This is called weak forms. A good example of these weak forms is the word and. When it is fully pronounced (strong form), it will sound /ænd/. When it is unstressed (weak form), it will sound more like /(ə)n(d)/.

How to make this 'schwa' sound

I hope that the explanation above can help you to understand why schwa can sound like many sounds: it is exactly because it can be many sounds. You just have to think of schwa as something being reduced toward the center sound.

To make a schwa sound, you just need to reduce the sound of the vowel you think it is supposed to sound like, and reduce it a lot, to the point that it almost loses the quality of the original vowel you at first thought. For example, the first syllable of the word accord has the schwa sound. But many ELLs (including myself, once upon a time) think that it should be pronounced /ack-cord/, and found that when a native speaker says this word, it sounds nothing like /ack-cord/. It shouldn't sound /ack-cord/, of course, because it actually is /ə-kord/. To pronounce words with schwa sounds correctly, just remember to reduce the vowels by shifting them toward the center vowel, as much as you can.

This begs the question: how does this center vowel sound like?

Here is my trick to produce this center vowel.

First, start by having your mouth closed, but not tense. Relax your face. Relax your jaw. Relax your tongue. Just keep relaxing.

Then, open your mouth by dropping your jaw just a little, just enough to let your sound come out. Do not move your tongue. Your tongue should rest in your mouth relaxingly. Your tongue does nothing. Make sure that you don't open your mouth too wide, because that's when you say Ah! (the sound that your dentist will ask you to make). Do not force your muscles around your lips. Do not try to form your lips into any shape. Just keep relaxed.

Then, make a sound.

And, there you have it! That's your center vowel. That's your ideal schwa!

Just remember that your tongue has nothing to do with this sound. It should rest comfortably in your mouth. Do not lift it. Do not protrude it. Do not hold it backward. Do not curl it up. Your jaw also does nothing much. Do not tense it. Do not move it forward or backward. Just drop it gently. Just keep relaxing.

Remember to open your mouth only moderately. Open it too much and you will get a sort of /ah/ sound. Try not to force your lips into any shape. Round your lips too much and you will get a sort of /o/. Flatten your lips too much and you will get a sort of /i/ (letter E) sound. (If you look at the IPA chart, the /i/ sound is at the "close" position, and the /ah/ sound is at the "open" position. In fact, the vertical arrangement of the IPA chart is exactly in the inverted proportion to how much you open your mouth!)

This is a long post for me, but I hope it is useful to you. It may be a bit too long to read, but I hope that it is worth your time reading it. And, above all, I hope that it can help you find your own schwa sound.

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“your language has no such concept as schwa” – does that exist? I thought schwa was more or less universal. –  Konrad Rudolph Dec 18 '13 at 8:35
No. I'm sure that my first language has no schwa sound. Although it's true that my first language (Thai) has something close to schwa sound, it's not the schwa sound anyway. I suspect that almost all Asian languages have no true schwa sound. –  Damkerng T. Dec 18 '13 at 8:44
@KonradRudolph At least some modern pronunciations of Latin don't map any of the vowels to the schwa, and I suspect the same is true of various regionalisms of some Romance languages (particularly Spanish/Catalan/Romanian). –  chrylis Dec 19 '13 at 9:33
@DamkerngT. I would not completely agree that Thai has no schwa sound. เ–อ [ɤː] and เ–อะ [ɤ] are pretty much close, especially in Northern Thai dialects. –  bytebuster Dec 28 '13 at 10:59
@bytebuster I agree that it's really close (as I mentioned above), but it's not the schwa sound. Being a native Thai speaker, I am well aware the subtle differences between the [ɤ] sound and the [ə] sound. Two most important ones are: a) the F1-F2 positions, though close are not identical; and b) our [ɤ] is always a bright sound. We will find more subtleties if we analyze further into the issue (for example, in spontaneous natural speeches, Thais can reduce vowels too, but not exactly in the same way as English people do, and so on). Anyway, thank you for your keen observation! –  Damkerng T. Dec 28 '13 at 11:13

Two sounds in English are commonly identified as schwa, and, as a native English speaker, while I acknowledge that they have similar qualities, I find them different.

The first is the vowel that occurs in most unstressed English syllables, e.g. the first syllable of about. This sound I produce as follows: my lips leave only a small opening, but I'm not using any muscles to constrict that opening (contrast "a" where my lips are more open or "o" where I am using muscles to round my lips a little). My tongue is in its "resting" position; neither raised nor pulled back. Most importantly, I don't make the sound for very long. We could call this the "lazy vowel." The idea is that in unstressed syllables, we do the minimal amount of work to make a vowel! It is extremely important to master this sound when speaking English.

Some speakers have two different sounds that go into unstressed vowels, so that the middle syllable of habitate is not quite this schwa; however, at least in my dialect, there is no distinction. Also, most literate English speakers will, if you ask them to repeat a word slowly, mislead you by accenting all the syllables: "I said "opp-or-tun-it-y" -if they do this, they won't make a schwa in the "or" or "it" syllables, but that is the sound we make when we say the word at a normal pace.

The second sound that is sometimes called schwa is a vowel that occurs in a few words and is not spelled consistently, but usually spelled [oo] or [u], as in hood or put. It always occurs in stressed syllables and never in unstressed syllables. I prefer to analyze this vowel as /ʊ/ and not as schwa, but some call it schwa (there are no minimal pairs distinguishing them, so this is not unreasonable). It is less important that you master this second sound. To make it, I make it similarly to the sound described in the previous paragraph, but the duration is longer, and there is significantly more muscular tension in the lips (they are rounded to roughly the "o" position).

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I don't think that /ʊ/ is ever referred to as schwa. What is often referred to as schwa is the STRUT vowel, which may likewise be spelled with {u} or {oo} as in mud, blood. This receives various pronunciations in different dialects, such as [ɐ] (near open central), [ə] (mid central), [ʌ] (open mid back). Personally, I don't like calling this full vowel schwa; I reserve the term for a reduced, unstressed vowel. –  StoneyB Dec 20 '13 at 17:11

The schwa is two things.

To phonologists, it is a vowel sound between e and a. The tongue is lower than e, but higher than a. This is independent of any connections with the English language.

To users of English dictionaries, the schwa it is an upside-down e notation which doesn't denote one specific phoneme but different sounds in different dialects of English. There are differences among dialects of English with regard what sound occurs. In some dialects, it becomes an "R-colored vowel".

Dictionaries use one symbol, because they use a phonemic rather than phonetic transcription system, which tries to bridge the differences among the major dialects of English in a single notation.

So if you see the schwa notation, you have to substitute the appropriate sound for your dialect. For instance, the word "water" in the dialects used in England has a more or less pure schwa on the end, whereas in most North American dialects (not all), it becomes rhotic ("a rolling R").

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Short answer: Go to this URL: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/bevel Click on the speaker icon. The second vowel in that word is the schwa sound.

If that's not clear, try this one: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/angle The second vowel in that is also a schwa.

If you listen to both, maybe you can hear the similarity in the sound.

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Are those schwa sounds, or syllabic 'l's? –  Peter Shor Dec 22 '13 at 0:01
The printed pronunciation guide on those two examples I cited shows them as schwas. A schwa is not the same as a short "i". I don't know how to explain a pronunciation other than to give an example word. That's why it's helpful that some on-line dictionaries give you a pronunciation key but also let you click a button to hear it read. –  Jay Dec 30 '13 at 15:42
Not a syllabic "eye", but a syllabic "ell". To me, the pronunciations you're hearing sound more like /ˈbev.l/ and /ˈæŋ.gl/—see the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary. –  Peter Shor Dec 31 '13 at 4:40
Oh, sorry, letter # 9 and letter # 12 look the same in many fonts. So okay, both the examples I gave have a schwa followed by "L", which perhaps is too limited. Here's one with schwa-R: thefreedictionary.com/river. Here's one with schwa-N: thefreedictionary.com/cajun –  Jay Dec 31 '13 at 16:51

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