Someone said, one is k.k sound mark, and another is international sound mark. Then, I find this

screenshot of 'fervor'

They are both in one phonetic system. Why?

4 Answers 4


[ɜː] and [ə] are phonetic symbols representing 2 absolutely different sounds.

[ə] is called schwa, which is a very short neutral vowel sound. We hear it at the end of the word "mother", "father", "teacher" etc. (generally, if the accent of the speaker is not American because Americans often add "r"): ['mʌðə], ['fɑːðə], ['tiːʧə].

[ɜː] can be heard in "bird" [bɜːd], "hurt" [hɜːt], "heard" [hɜːd].

See the phonetic chart below:

enter image description here

  • "if the accent of the speaker is not American because Americans add "r"" More precisely, rhotic dialects have an r. There are non-rhotic Americans and rhotic Britons. And it's a bit weird to say that Americans "add" an r, when the spelling implies that the standard form has an r. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 5:04

Both /ɜ/ and /ə/ are IPA symbols. The key difference between /ɜː/ and /ə/ (schwa) is that /ɜː/ chiefly occurs in stressed syllables while /ə/ occurs in unstressed syllables at least in British English (I can't speak for American English). There's also a length difference1 between /ɜː/ and /ə/. [ː] signifies vowel length. In RP, /ɜː/ occurs in the word bird, while /ə/ in the first syllable of about

If you look at the vowel chart, you will see that both /ɜ/ and /ə/ are in the 'central' position:

Vowel chart

It means they are both central vowels. Central vowel is one in which the central part of the tongue body is raised towards the roof of the mouth.

/ə/ is located at the very centre of the vowel chart; central and mid. A mid vowel is one in which the tongue is positioned midway between an open vowel (like the vowel in cat) and a close vowel (the vowel in seat). So the mouth is neither too open, nor too close while articulating /ə/.

/ɜ/ is located a tiny bit lower than /ə/, meaning the mouth is a bit more open while articulating /ɜ/, so we can say /ɜ/ is 'open-mid' vowel. An open-mid vowel is one in which the tongue is positioned one third of the way from an open vowel to a close vowel. But this distinction is incomprehensibly minuscule.

The first syllable of 'fervour' is stressed so it has /ɜː/, while the second syllable is unstressed and has /ə/. [Also note that it's the pronunciation of 'fervour' in non-rhotic accents (RP), in rhotic accents, the first syllable would have r-coloured /ɜː/ i.e. /ɝː/]

(I've also explained the difference between /ɪ/ and /ə/ in this answer and between /ʌ/ and /ə/ in this one.)

1. The difference is not only length, but that of 'quality'. As can be observed in /iː/ and /ɪ/. /iː/ is the vowel in 'beat' while /ɪ/ in 'bit', so the vowels in those words are qualitatively distinct from each other.

  • 3
    The difference in quality depends very much on the speakers' accent — in several dialects, the difference in quality is minimal, if it exists at all. Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 21:21

Here's what author Gerald Kelly says about the two phonemes in his book (How to Teach Pronunciation):

  1. For both phonemes, /ə/ and /ɜː/, the center of the tongue is between the half-close and half-open positions (The 'close' position is where the tongue is closest to the roof of the mouth). Lips are relaxed, and neutrally spread.

  2. /ə/ differs from others phonemes, in that its contrast with similarly articulated long sound /ɜː/ does not involve a change of meaning.

  • 2
    No change in meaning? What about foreword and forward. Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 21:18
  • I spent the last two days trying to find an example that wasn't foreword / forward. The only one I found was a / uh. I think the author's proposal is a good generalization. Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 19:41
  • I think foreword/forward may be the only one-word example. But you can come up with two-word examples like clam bird and clambered (and possibly even more plausible ones). Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 20:09

Well, probably /ɜː/ is an allophone of /ə/. 'Bird' /bɜd/ and /ə'baut/ sounds the same for me. On the other hand, the /ə/ in possible /posəbəl/ is another thing. It most certainly is not the same sound as /ə/ in 'bird'.

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