Schwa Definition and Examples in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, represented as ə in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Only words with two or more syllables may have a schwa. Also called the mid-central vowel.

The schwa represents a mid-central vowel in an unstressed syllable, such as the second syllable of woman and the second syllable of buses. Any vowel letter can stand for the schwa sound.

The term schwa (from the Hebrew) was first used in linguistics by the 19th-century German philologist Jacob Grimm.

Examples and Observations

"It is extremely important . . . to recognize that pronouncing unstressed vowels as schwa is not lazy or sloppy. All native speakers of Standard English (including the Queen of England, the Prime Minsiter of Canada, and the President of the United States!) use schwa." (Peter Avery and Susan Ehrlich, Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Reduced Vowels

"Vowels change in quality when they are reduced. The reduced vowel tends to be not only very short, but also very unclear, producing an obscure sound that is hard to identify. Consider, as an example, the name of the California town Orinda, pronounced /ər'in-də/, with the first vowel and the last vowel reduced to schwa. Only the second vowel in the word, the stressed vowel, maintains its clarity. The other two vowels are very unclear." (Judy B. Gilbert, Clear Speech: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English, 3rd ed.

Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Dialectal Variations in Schwa Usage

"If you listen for it, you can hear schwa in all sorts of places where syllables aren't stressed--for example, at the beginnings of words like official, occasion, event and fatigue. Many people . . . feel that 'schwa-ful' pronunciations are lazy, but really you would sound pretty odd if you did pronounce the full vowel in place of schwa in these words.

Pronunciations like 'ohfficial' and 'ohccasion' sound unnatural and rather theatrical. Schwa also occurs in the middle of words like coronation and afterwards. Again, it would be peculiar not to sound schwa in this position—for instance, 'corohnation' for coronation. . . .

"Schwa usage varies greatly between dialects. Australian English speakers often put schwas in places where British and American speakers won't. Striking differences are also now appearing as a consequence of the worldwide spread of English." (Kate Burridge, Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2004)
 

Schwa and Zero Schwa

"In terms of duration—a phonetic property that the IPA vowel chart does not indicate—schwa is typically quite short, and this short duration may co-vary with its tendency to be co-articulated. . . .

"[G]iven its short duration and its consequent tendency to camouflage itself to its context through co-articulation, schwa may be confused with its absence, setting up a situation in which schwa-zero alternations may take hold in a system . . .." (Daniel Silverman, "Schwa." The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, ed. by Marc van Oostendorp et al.

Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Schwa and English Spelling

"For the most part, the schwa vowel sound in a two-syllable word is identified by the 'uh' pronunciation and sound.

"Oftentimes, children spell chocolate as choclat, separate as seprate, or memory as memry. The schwa vowel is thus omitted. The vowel sound schwa is also found in two-syllable words such as alone, pencil, syringe, and taken. Children commonly misrepresent the schwa vowel and spell these words: ulone for alone, pencol for pencil, suringe for syringe, and takin for taken. It is still the vowel in the unstressed syllable that is featured in this case . . .. This time, it is substituted with another incorrect vowel.

"These aforementioned misunderstandings generally disappear as the child advances in his reasoning and knowledge of the English language, learns conventional alternatives for representing sounds, and begins to apply patterning including syllables and a visual sense to his spelling." (Roberta Heembrock, Why Kids Can't Spell: A Practical Guide to the Missing Component in Language Proficiency.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

Schwa and the Evolution of Language

"[T]here is one vowel, now quite common in the languages of the world, that is . . . unlikely to have been in the inventories of earliest languages. This is the 'schwa' vowel, [ə], as in the second syllable of English sofa. . . . In English, schwa is the classic weak vowel, not used in any crucial contrasting function, but as a variant of (almost) any vowel in unstressed position. . . . Not all languages have a schwa vowel, weakening an unstressed vowel as English does. But many languages with similar rhythmic properties to English have an equivalent to the English schwa vowel. It seems likely that the earliest languages, before they had had time to evolve such weakening rules, would not have had a schwa vowel." (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language. Oxford University Press, 2014)

Pronunciation: SHWA

Alternate Spellings: shwa