#249: The Schwa Sound [English Pronunciation Training]

by | Aug 17, 2022 | 9 comments

In this English pronunciation lesson, we’re focused 100% on the schwa /ə/, which is the most common sound in English. It’s also, arguably, the most important – particularly for natural-sounding pronunciation.

Now if you’re thinking huh, the schwa? What is that? Don’t worry. I’ve got you.

In this Confident English lesson today, you’re going to learn

  • What this essential sound, the schwa, is
  • why it’s so important
  • 2 rules for using the schwa in English
  • 7 ways to apply those rules so you can easily identify words in which the schwa should be used

And the good news is, understanding how to use the schwa will not only help you sound more natural in English when you speak but you’ll also better understand fast English speakers

Tip: Today’s lesson is part of my series on how to understand fast English speakers.

The Schwa Sound for Natural-Sounding Speech in English

What exactly is the schwa sound? 

The schwa is the MOST common vowel sound in English and it’s what we call a reduced vowel sound. It’s also considered the lazy vowel sound.

The schwa can replace vowels in a word. Any vowel. It can replace the a, e, i, o, and u. (Throughout this lesson, you’ll see examples of that.)

The reason it’s so important in English pronunciation is it’s used to convey the correct stress and rhythm of English. 

What does it sound like? 

The schwa typically sounds like /uh/.

And to produce this sound, we keep everything relaxed, lazy. The jaw, tongue, and lips are relaxed. The mouth only opens slightly.

In writing, the symbol we use to represent the schwa ə.

For example, you don’t see it but you can hear it in the word helmet /helmət/

What makes the schwa so challenging?

What makes the schwa challenging is the fact that we don’t see it in writing. 

When you learn a word in English, you’ll see the vowels a, e, i, o, u or combinations of vowels.

But in spoken communication, it’s there. 

Here’s another example: 

When you learn the word content as in “I feel content” you’ll see an /o/ but what you’ll hear is kənˈtent.

So, how is this related to fast English speakers?

Excessive use of the schwa (which is natural in spoken communication) can make someone sound like a fast speaker because the schwa sound reduces the time it takes to produce a vowel sound.

It’s used in unstressed syllables, which we’ll learn more about, and syllables with the schwa are usually said faster and at a lower volume than stressed words or syllables. 

As a result, syllables containing schwa give the illusion that the words are spoken quickly. 

Rule #1: Schwa In Unstressed Syllables

To understand this rule, you need to understand the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in English. 

Now, this can be a challenge because not everyone can initially hear the difference between stressed vs. unstressed sounds in English. So let me share an example I learned many years ago that might help you recognize the difference:

When I was a child, I loved playing hide and seek or kickball in the street with my neighbhood friends. When it was time for me to come home, I would hear my mom or dad yell:

ANNE-ma-RIE

Can you identify the unstressed part of my name? 

ANNE-ma-RIE

The -ma- part of my name is unstressed — the syllable with less emphasis; as highlighted previously, it’s said faster and with lower volume. In fact, you hear the schwa there. ANNE-mə-RIE.

The schwa only occurs in unstressed syllables

Let’s look a 5 examples of this rule in action and, along the way, you’ll continue to identify the difference between stressed vs. unstressed syllables.

 

5 Uses of the Schwa In Unstressed Syllables

Use #1: In Words Ending With ‘A’

In multisyllabic words ending with the letter ‘a’, the final ‘a’ is often reduced to the schwa sound. 

For instance, the following words are pronounced with a schwa sound:

  • Cola – /koʊ lə/
  • Sofa – /soʊ fə/
  • Panda – /pæn də/

Practice: How might you say the following? 

  • Barista – /bəˈrɪs tə/
  • Freesia – /fri ʒi ə/
  • Persona – /pərˈsoʊ nə/
  • Iguana – /ɪˈgwɑ nə/

 

Use #2: In Words Beginning With ‘A’

Similarly, multisyllabic words beginning with the letter ‘a’ can also take on the schwa sound when it forms a weak syllable. 

For example, instead of enunciating with /eɪ/ (as in say, day, may) we use the schwa sound in the following: 

  • Ago – /əgoʊ/
  • Atone – /ətoʊn/
  • Away – /əweɪ/

Practice: How might you say the following?

  • Alaska – /əlæskə/

 

Use #3: In The Middle Of Words

The schwa sound occurs in the middle of words with more than two syllables. However, as mentioned before, only when the syllable is weak. 

For example, the following words have more than two syllables and a schwa in the middle:

  • Elephant – /ɛləfənt/
  • Dinosaur – /daɪnəsɔr/
  • Sediment – /sɛd əmənt/

Challenge: How might you say the following words? How many schwa sounds are in each word?

  • Algebra
  • Academic
  • Transatlantic

Answers

  • /ældʒəbrə/ – 2
  • /ækədɛm ɪk/ – 1
  • /trænsətlæntɪk/ – 1

 

Use #4 In Words With -ain, – on, OR -an

The schwa sound commonly occurs in words that end with -ain, -on, or –an, when the syllable is unstressed. 

For instance, in the word ‘human’, the first syllable carries the primary stress and the second syllable is unstressed.

Rather than pronounce the second syllable as ‘man’, the ‘a’ adopts the schwa sound, /uh/. So, we say /hyumən/.

Practice: How might you say the following words? 

  • Bargain
  • Captain
  • Reason
  • Person

Answers:

  • /bɑrgən/
  • /kæptən/
  • /rizən/
  • /pɜrsən/

 

Use #5: Schwa In Noun Suffixes

Words that end with noun suffixes that are unstressed and weak are also pronounced with the schwa sound.

  • -tion
    • as in Station
    • /steɪʃən/
  • -ity
    • as in Ability
    • /əbɪləti/
  • -ism
    • as in Feminism
    • /fɛmənɪzəm/
  • -el
    • as in Parallel
    • /pærələl/
  • -al
    • as in Integral 
    • /ɪnˈtɛg rəl/
  • -ment
    • as in Placement
    • /pleɪsmənt/
  • -acy
    • as in Democracy
    • /dɪmɒkrəsi/
  • -ness
    • as in Happiness
    • /hæpinəs/
  • -or
    • as in Candor
    • /kændər/
  • -dom
    • as in Fandom
    • /fændəm/
  • -ance
    • as in Guidance
    • /gaɪdəns/

 

There are many more, but these noun suffixes almost always reduce the vowel to a schwa sound. 

Now, let’s transition to the second rule for using the schwa in English.

Rule #2: Use the Schwa with Function Words

Function words are words that have a grammatical or structural relationship with other words in a sentence. In other words, they have a job to do. 

Function words include:

  • Conjunctions (ex. because, and, as, however)
  • Determiners (ex. a, your, their, much)
  • Prepositions (ex. of, at, across, into)
  • Pronouns (ex. anybody, someone, anyone)
  • Auxiliaries (ex. does, was, am)
  • Questions words (ex. what)
  • Qualifiers (ex. Somewhat, rather, little)

Like other multisyllabic words, the strategies for identifying schwa also apply to multisyllabic function words. 

Three uses of the schwa with function words.

Use #6: Schwa In One-Syllable Function Words

One-syllable function words especially adopt the schwa sound.

Function words such as to, for, as, a, the, at, and an have vowels that are reduced to the schwa sound. In effect, the reduced sound creates the illusion that a person is speaking fast. 

When in isolation, or intentionally emphasized, the vowel sounds in the words remain intact. However, when they occur in a sentence, or in combination with other words, they are often unstressed. 

  • For example: As is pronounced /æz/ when on its own. However, in a sentence such as, “I’m not as tall as you”, it takes on the schwa sound and sounds like /əz/.

Similarly, we also hear the schwa sound occur when ‘your’ or ‘you’ are reduced in a sentence.

Rather than clearly enunciating ‘your’, native speakers will say /jər/.

  • “I’d like to hear /jər/ opinion.”

Practice: How might you say the function words in the following sentences? 

  • The card’s for me. 
  • I need a cup of coffee. 
  • Could you pass me a pen? 

Answers: 

  • For → /fər/
  • A → /ə/; Of → /əv/
  • A → /ə/

 

Use #7: Schwa In Reductions With ‘To’

In my English pronunciation lessons on fast English speakers, I’ve shared a lesson on common reductions

Let’s revisit that topic.

Some words combine with ‘to’ to form reductions, such as gonna, wanna, and gotta. When the reduced forms occur, they also weaken in stress and adopt the schwa sound.

For reductions that end with ‘a’, we can apply Strategy #1 and remember that the ‘a’ is reduced to a schwa.

 

Practice: How would the following be reduced and pronounced? 

  • Going to
  • Have to
  • Got to

Answers:

  • /gɑnə/
  • /wɑnə/
  • /hæftə/

 

Use #8: Schwa In Reductions With ‘Of’ 

Like ‘to’ when ‘of’ is combined with another word to produce a reduced form, it also adopts the schwa sound.

It is also reduced to a [ə] when combined. 

  • Ex. I had to let go of /ə/ the rope.  

Let’s put everything you’ve learned together with this challenge:

Try to apply the strategies you’ve learned to say the following sentence: 

  • An elephant walked into the room and spilled the professor’s drink on the sofa.

Review the sentence and using the rules you learned today, identify all the uses of the schwa.

After you complete this challenge, you can find the sentence with the uses of the schwa in the comments below.

      ~ Annemarie

       

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