English Vowels: Occurrence and Pronunciation of Schwa

If you have ever heard people complain about the “swallowed” vowels in English, they are probably complaining about pronunciation of schwa, which is the vowel represented by a in about.

In English and many other languages, certain vowels are reduced to a very short, indistinct vowel in certain environments.  Other English examples include the o in jargon, the i and the u in halibut, the y in martyr, and the e in harem.  In all of these cases, the schwa doesn’t sound like any vowel in particular, and these examples demonstrate the fact that schwa can be represented by any of the English vowel letters.  While some students might attribute this phenomenon to laziness on the part of English speakers, there are scientific explanations that cast doubt on that assertion.  The fact is that there are logical reasons for the occurrence of schwa, which will be discussed below.

SEE ALSO: The Sounds of American English

What Schwa Is and How It’s Pronounced

Pronunciation of SchwaWhen you pronounce the vowel in read, you will notice that the lips are spread and the tongue has to move forward and be elevated towards the roof of the mouth.  When you pronounce the vowel in rude, the tongue moves back and the lips are rounded.  When you pronounce the word fox (American accent), you have to open the mouth a lot.  Schwa, on the other hand, requires almost no movement of any kind; the tongue stays in its normal resting place, the lips are neither rounded nor spread, and the mouth is opened just enough to allow some air to pass through it.  Schwa is therefore centralized because there is no need to move anything forward, backward, up, or down, which is what you have to do to pronounce all the other vowels.

Stress-timed and Syallable-timed Languages

Every language has a rhythm, and in English, the “beat” is on stressed syallables; that is, roughly the same amount of time passes between each stress.

In the sentence Caesar was a good patriot of the Roman Republic there are five beats, which are shown in bold.  These are the stressed syllables, and you will notice that there is approximately the same interval between each beat, no matter how many syllables there are between them.  You will also notice that most of these intervening syllables are reduced to schwa.

For example, all vowels between Caesar and good are schwa.  One explanation for this is that there is a need to make these vowels shorter in order to maintain the stress-timed rhythm.  If these vowels were fully pronounced, the distance from one stressed syllable to the next would be too inconsistent, and the language would lose its rhythm.  In languages such as French, each syllable itself constitutes a beat, so the same amount of time passes between each syllable, whether they are stressed or unstressed.  Languages with this type of rhythm are called syllable-timed langauges.  Unsurprisingly, speakers of French and other syllable-timed languages are generally the people who have the hardest time with schwa.

Primary and Secondary Stress

In order to predict the reduction of vowels to schwa, it is important to know the location of the primary stress and the secondary stress in a given word because these syllables are usually not reduced.  The primary stress is the most prominent and intense, followed by secondary stress (not all words have a secondary stress).  For example, the word education has its primary stress on a and its secondary stress on e.  The other two vowels, represented by u and o, are both reduced to schwa.  These guidelines can usually, though not always, be followed.  If in doubt about a certain word, it is best to consult a dictionary or listen to native speakers.

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