The English alphabet has five vowels: A, E, I, O and U (and OK, yes, sometimes Y). But you don’t have to spend much time listening to English before you realize that those letters don’t capture all of the vowel sounds English speakers actually make. For just one of a million examples, the letter O makes different sounds in coop, cope and cop. This can make learning English a tough task. And there’s one sound that is especially confounding: the schwa vowel, or ə. While it may sound minor, the schwa can teach you a lot about pronunciation and the difficulties of mastering a new language.
What’s A Schwa Vowel?
You know how to make vowel sounds. You’ve been making them your whole life. You don’t have to think twice about saying ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. But have you really paid attention to how your mouth actually forms these sounds? Fortunately, there’s a chart for that.
Don’t let the complexity of this chart scare you! Yes, there are a lot of unrecognizable symbols and the whole thing looks weird, but it’s not too hard to understand.
First, you should know that the above chart includes all of the vowels. There’s no language, however, that uses all of the vowels. American English, for example, has about 14 vowels (though accents and other factors make that number flexible). For Standard English, then, it looks a little more like this:
Alright, still confusing. I get it. Part of the issue is that the symbols used in this chart come from the International Phonetic Alphabet, or the IPA. The Latin alphabet, as we’ve mentioned, doesn’t capture all the sounds that humans make. To fill the gaps, the IPA was created, and it needs more symbols to capture all of the sounds (though even the IPA is imperfect). Using an interactive IPA chart is the best way of learning to which sounds these symbols correspond.
What’s the deal with the diagram itself, then? Well, this weirdly shaped grid is actually a diagram of your mouth as seen from the side. Each point represents where your tongue is in your mouth when you make the vowel. Let’s try the i in the top left, which represents the vowel in the word “keep.” If you sustain that “ee,” you can see how your tongue is at the front of your mouth, and close to the top. Keeping your tongue up there, you can slide back to the “oo,” which is represented in the chart by u. Moving further you can lower the tongue to make an “aw” sound, or the ɑ. The quality of the vowel also depends on whether you’re rounding your lips or not, but the movement of your tongue is the most important factor in this chart.
Getting to the exact middle of the chart, you’ll see our friendly ə, the schwa. Here, your tongue stays right in the middle of your mouth. It’s the sound you make if you open your mouth and start making a noise. A very bland uhhhhh. It’s a different uh than the vowel in “cub,” because the schwa only appears in syllables that are not stressed. Examples include the “a” in about and the first “e” in rebellious. If you start to pay attention, you’ll start noticing schwas everywhere.
Where Does The Schwa Appear?
The weird thing about the schwa is that it’s not associated with any specific letter of the alphabet. It’s the most common sound in English — North American English, at least — and any vowel can create the sound in a word. As far as the alphabet goes, the schwa doesn’t exist at all. Except it does, and it’s everywhere.
It wasn’t always everywhere, though. In Old English, the vowels were spoken more fully, and there were fewer schwas, if any. If you were to mimic that way of speaking with modern English, it would sound like you’re enunciating everything a little too much. As the language evolved into Middle English, word stress became more central to pronunciation (stress being roughly where you put the emphasis in words). The unstressed vowel syllables tended to become even less stressed, which caused them to morph into schwas.
While the schwas continued to proliferate in Modern English, the word “schwa” was not in the English language until the 19th century. Before then, it was called a name like “the natural vowel” or “the weak vowel,” because people needed some way to describe this vowel that was not an A, E, I, O or U. “Schwa” was taken from the Hebrew shva, which referred to a symbol that corresponds roughly to the schwa, and it traveled through German before making it into English, with the first use attested to in 1895. The word “schwa” proliferated in the same way schwas themselves did.
The schwa can disappear in a process called schwa syncope, which is very common in North American English (and the phenomenon also exists in other languages, including Hindi and French). A word like “chocolate” started being pronounced more like “CHOC-o-late,” then that middle vowel turned into a schwa to become “CHOC-ə-late,” and later just “CHOC-late.” Other examples of this are in the words “camera” and “family”; and you might not even notice that you’re not pronouncing these middle letters.
If that’s not enough, the schwa can also pop up in places where no letter indicates that it should there. Sometimes, the human mouth decides there needs to be a vowel between two letters. To fill that space, here comes the schwa in a process called schwa epenthesis. In the name Dwight, for example, sometimes a sound is added between the “D” and the “w,” making it more like “də-WIGHT.” Another common example transforms “realtor” into “real-ə-tor.” This doesn’t happen in every dialect, but it’s pretty common in North America. Like with syncope, English is not alone. Other languages have similar processes, though not every language inserts a schwa into these gaps.
What Can The Schwa Vowel Teach Us About Pronunciation?
It’s always worthwhile to learn more about the language you speak. If you’ve never known about schwas before, now you have a whole new way to think about how you talk!
But learning about schwas is also a way to learn about pronunciation in general. When you’re studying a new language, it’s not enough to just look at words to know how to pronounce them. While some languages do spell words similarly to how they’re pronounced, no language is without nuance.
If you want to improve your accent in a new language, finding out all the quirks of pronunciation is important. You have lots of options to go about this. You can find a vowel chart specifically for the language you’re learning to get a feel for what they sound like. You can look up the specific quirks of each language to incorporate into your speech. And, most importantly, you can listen to as much speech by native speakers as possible. While it’s tempting to get by on reading the language alone, texts cannot fully prepare you for what speaking the language will be like. By tuning your ear to the intricacies of a language — whether they be schwa vowels or anything else — you’ll get better at it in no time.