PRONUNCIATION – THE SCHWA (AND ITS RELATIVES)

Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

After going over the long and short vowel sounds in English – as well as some outliers – I wanted to dwell a bit on one particular sound and give it the attention it deserves. This is one of the most important, universal, and frustrating sounds in the spelling world. In phonics, we learned this as a “short u” sound (and it looked like this: ŭ). To make light of it a bit, I consider this the sound that a speller often makes when confronted with a word they don’t know: “uh…” It also has an amusing appearance in the dictionary: an upside down e, (appearing like this: ǝ). Spellers, meet the tricky schwa.

Why is the schwa so frustrating? In most cases, in most languages, it can be represented by virtually any vowel. For example, let’s look at the following words:

  • A-schwa words: again, opera, tuna
  • E-schwa words : elect*, erase*, raven
  • I– schwa words: unit*, cabin, pencil
  • O-schwa words: done, some, affront
  • U-schwa words: run, blunt, plum
  • Y-schwa words: polymer*, etymology, syringe*

The annoyance of the tricky schwa doesn’t end there. Here are a few variants on this universal sound.

The dotted schwa

In the MWU, there is actually a symbol that looks like a schwa with a dot over it, as if the schwa was a lower case i. And this is a key to the pronunciation of this sound. Merriam Webster states that this sound can range from a full-on “uh” sound (a typical schwa) in informal situations to a short i sound in formal situations, as in the word hit. In a spelling bee, the pronouncer may give any pronunciation between these sounds, but will probably go for a schwa. Worse, the dotted schwa is always part of an unstressed syllable, which makes it hard to hear. But train your ear to differentiate it from a plain schwa, and you may be able to double your chances of spelling this sound correctly. Why? The dotted schwa only represents the vowels e, i, and y, whereas the schwa can represent all six vowels (including y). In fact, words in the e, i, and y sections above that are starred are represented by the dotted schwa!

The raised schwa

In some cases, you may see a raised schwa that is in superscript form. In other words, it is higher than the text around it, and smaller too. When this occurs, the schwa is barely pronounced in between two consonants. Consider the word kitten. If we were to put a full schwa where the letter e goes, it would sound a bit like this: KI-tun. That’s a bit strange. In reality, we stop at the second t, and pretty much make the \n\ sound almost without making a vowel sound before it. The schwa is barely a formality, so we use a raised schwa to represent it, and the word is pronounced like so: \ˈkitən\ . Other words where you see the raised schwa include cotton, button, vinyl, and lesson.

Almost done!

Have we covered every vowel sound in English? Well, no…not quite. There are a few other vowel sounds to conquer. Take a deep breath, take a break…and let’s meet up on the next blog post to see if we can finish learning about English vowel sounds! (And no, there is no tricky schwa in the next post. I promise.)