Why Does the Schwa Sound Feel Ignored and Overlooked? What is the most popular sound in the English language? If you want to learn to speak American English, you need to learn about this sound. It’s the
unstressed “uh” sound otherwise known as the “schwa” sound. When you encounter the schwa sound it will be disguised by all 6 of American English vowels. You will find it masquerading as the “a” in “about”; the “e” as in the second syllable of “elephant”; the “i” as in pencil; the /o/ in “condition”; “u” as in “support” and the “y” as in “ vinyl”.
To teach people to identify where the shwa is hiding, you need to find the weak syllable in a word, and then identify the vowel in the weak syllable. In the above example, “about” has two syllables, “a” and “bout”. The “a” is not stressed and therefore the….weak syllable so it is given the shwa sound.
Another way is to listen to Americans speak and learn from their pattern.In order to let people know that the vowel spelled in a word is actually a schwa sound, it is symbolized by an upside down e in the International Phonetic Alphabet and also in the dictionary. It looks like this.
The schwa has a history. The term comes from the Hebrew word “shva,” which translates as the absence of a vowel or as a mid-front unrounded vowel sound. Besides English, languages such as Albanian, Catalan and Indonesian use the schwa sound, sometimes in stressed and unstressed variations.
The upside down e was first used as a symbol for the schwa sound by Johann Schmeller in his 1821 explanation of Bavarian German. Because he was describing the specific properties of a particular dialect, he needed a way to represent actual pronunciation.
Before people started calling it “Schwa” in English around 1895, it was called by different nicknames such as the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel.
In English, we tend to delete an unstressed syllable in a word with 2 or more syllables. This syllable usually contains a schwa sound. The following common words are “family” (famly); conference (confrens); Listening (lissning); basically (basiklee).
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By Ela Britchkow, Speech and Language Pathologist
©2017 Ela Britchkow