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Arika Okrent explains schwas on Lexicon Valley

We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That’s why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ—an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.

1. ANY WRITTEN VOWEL CAN BE A SPOKEN SCHWA

A schwa is the ‘uh’ sound found in an unstressed syllable. For example, the first syllable in amazing (ǝ-MA-zing), the first syllable in tenacious (tǝ-NA-cious), the second syllable in replicate (RE-plǝ-cate), the second syllable in percolate (PER-cǝ-late), the first syllable in supply (sǝ –PLY), the first syllable in syringe (sǝ-RINGE). That’s a written A, E, I, O, U and even a Y coming out as schwa in the spoken version.

Schwas are very common in English (although they’re surprisingly difficult to play in IPA Scrabble, because they’re far more common in polysyllabic words). They’re less common in other languages, and are one of the things that contribute to non-native accents in both directions: English speakers tend to reduce vowels to schwa even when it’s unwarranted, and speakers of many other languages tend to pronounce too many full vowels. 

Because of how common and distinctively-shaped schwa is, it (along with wugs) have become a ubiquitous icon for linguistics. For example, there’s a schwa necklace, dozens of schwa mugs and t-shirts, and of course the publication Schwa Fire

Btw, if you’re saying these aloud and can’t convince yourself that they’re all the same sound or that some of them are clearly more like an “ih” sound like in sit or thin than an “uh”, you’re not crazy. There are actually two reduction vowels in English, schwa and what’s called barred i, or ɨ. They are often treated as the same and called schwa for simplicity, but in my dialect at least, barred i is actually way more frequent.

The classic example used to demonstrate the difference is to say the phrase “Rosa’s roses” out loud. The second vowel in “Rosa’s” is a schwa, whereas in “roses” it’s a barred i. Barred i often shows up in prefixes, suffixes, and in reduced vowels that occur between alveolar consonants, such as d, t, n, or s.

Yes, good point!