English speakers use the schwa all the time. It’s our most popular vowel sound, and yet we don’t have any written symbol that corresponds to it. That’s because English spelling – a topic I love to rant and rave about – is a very poor guide for pronunciation. English is one of the least phonetic languages, which is why words like rough, cough, and dough are spelled similarly but pronounced totally differently. That’s also why words like there, their and there, or two, to, and two, are all spelled differently but pronounced the same. In English, spelling does not always equal pronunciation. And one of the culprits behind this disconnect is the schwa, every American-English speaker’s best friend. But who is this friend that we’ve all secretly been spending so much time with?
Here are six facts to help you get to know the schwa a little better:
1: Any written vowel can be spoken as a schwa
The schwa is represented by an upside-down e in dictionaries and other phonetic guides (ǝ), and it’s spoken like ‘uh,’ as in ‘uh-huh.’ It’s used in unstressed syllables, and, outside of the world of phonetics, it can be represented in writing by ANY of the vowels. Here are six words to demonstrate: banana (buh-NA-nuh), tenacious (tuh-NA-CIOUS), family (FAM-uh-ly), percolate (PER-cuh-late), supply (suh-PLY), and syringe (suh-RINGE). In case you weren’t paying attention, that was a written A, E, I, O, U, and even Y, all spoken as schwas.
2: English speakers tend to delete syllables with schwas in them
Pretty much all of us learned about word stress at some point during English class. Remember those exercises where you clap each syllable of a word and try to figure out which one of them gets the stress? I don’t think I’d be overgeneralizing to say that, for most of us, identifying word stress can be… stressful. And clapping doesn’t help much. The ironic thing about this is that pretty much all native English speakers are experts when it comes to word stress. Ten out of ten times, we put the stress on the right syllable when we’re speaking, and sometimes, we even delete the unstressed syllables when we’re in a hurry. What happened to the third syllable in the following words? Family (fam-ly), every (ev-ry), different (diff-rent), caramel (car-mel), chocolate (choc-late), separate (sep-rate). In every one of those words, the schwa sound follows the stressed syllable, and sometimes English speakers just figure, ‘well, who needs it?’
3: English speakers also like to add the schwa sometimes
Epenthesis is the process where one or more sounds gets added to a word. Think hamster to hampster. This happens for a variety of reasons depending on the context, but the schwa in particular tends to get inserted into words as a means of breaking up tricky consonant clusters. Examples of this include: real-uh-tor for realtor, or nuc-yuh-ler for nuclear. It can also be used for emphasis or dramatic effect, as in, “that was ‘cuh-raaaa-zy!”
4: The schwa is the most common vowel sound in American English
That’s right! Even once all those deletions and additions are accounted for, the schwa remains the most popular of all our vowel sounds. This is likely because it’s one of the easiest sounds for us to make (but I’ll get to that later on). What’s easier for native speakers, though, is a whole lot harder for non-native speakers. Because the schwa isn’t represented in written English, non-native speakers – who already tend to struggle with English stress patterns – have the extra burden of trying to figure out where on earth to put the schwa. This, of course, is entirely dependent on those stress patterns, making the whole thing one big vicious circle.
5: The schwa’s popularity relies on the fact that English is a stress-timed language
Why do non-native speakers struggle with English stress patterns? Contrary to many other languages, English is a stress-timed language, meaning that stressed syllables are actually longer than non-stressed syllables, and the rhythmic impression is based on the long stress peaks that occur throughout a sentence. Other languages, like Spanish, also have stressed syllables, but those syllables are not any longer than other syllables. They’re just louder and higher pitched. In fact, pretty much every syllable is the same length, which often gives non-native speakers the impression that Spanish has a ‘machine-gun’ rhythm.
How does this relate back to the schwa? When a Spanish speaker wants to speed up, they shorten the length of all syllables, maintaining the stress with loudness and pitch. When an English speaker want to speed up, they shorten the length of time between those longer stress peaks. How do they do this? By reducing unstressed syllables. Most of the time, that means converting them into schwas. Occasionally, as explained above, it means deleting them altogether.
6: The schwa is the easiest vowel sound to produce
English speakers can be a little lazy sometimes, hence the vast popularity of the schwa. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the schwa – we go way back, and I’m more than positive we’ll stay friends until the day I die or else stop speaking English altogether. And that’s probably because it’s such an easy friendship. For every other vowel in English, you’ve got to move your tongue forward or backward, or your jaw up and down, or you’ve got to round your lips, or do some combination of all three. For the schwa? All you’ve got to do is set your vocal cords in motion, and you’re already done.
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she now lives in Chicago.