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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

What is schwa and why is it so important?

Of all the 44 sounds of British English, and 43 (or so) sounds of American English, there is one sound which plays an important role in the pace, flow and fluency of spoken English. It is so important to these aspects of pronunciation that it has its own name: schwa.  Schwa is represented by an upside-down letter e (the phoneme /ə/. So what is schwa, why do we need it, and how can we use it to help students with their spoken fluency? There are several reasons for this:

  1. Schwa saves effort

Schwa is produced by relaxing your mouth, tongue and jaw (but not lowering it) so that you mouth is in a half-open, relaxed position, and voicing a short ‘uh’ sound. In contrast to other vowel sounds (like ‘ee’, which is produced by spreading your lips, or ‘a’ as in ‘apple’, which is produced by opening the mouth wide), schwa requires very little effort form the muscles of the mouth, and therefore can be produced quickly, with almost no effort.

This is important because effort from the mouth muscles is a major blockage to communication. Your brain produces messages many hundreds of times faster than your mouth could possible produce them, so any physical effort from the speech apparatus in your mouth prevents these messages from being communicated. The more effortful the words you speak, the fewer ideas you can produce in a specific time frame. Schwa, being a very low-effort phoneme, is useful as it cuts down the effort of speaking, therefore raising the amount of information that can be communicated. The more schwas we produce, the faster we can speak and the more ideas our brains can get across to the people we are speaking to.

Think about the effort of forming sounds in another language, using unfamiliar combinations of muscles and sounds that don’t exist in your first language, and you can easily see how much work is necessary to think about, pronounce and connect together words to form intelligible speech, even if you have the perfect series of words ready in your mind. This is why schwa is important for speakers of English as a second language as much as it is for first-language English speakers - it cuts down the effort of the already incredibly tiring and effortful task of speaking in English.

2. Schwa is never stressed - be like schwa!

Schwa is what is known as a ‘weak form’. This means that it can be used in place of many different vowel sounds when they appear in weak, or unstressed syllables. Think about the following example words:

Produce (noun - fruits and vegetables) / Produce (verb)

Although these two words come from the same origin, and have the same spellings, the same ‘o’ sound in the ‘pro-‘ part of the words are pronounced differently - in the noun form, the first syllable is stressed, and the ‘o’ sound is pronounced in its full form (either /ɒ/, pronounced with the effort of rounded lips, or /əʊ/, a diphthong, or double sound, which requires the effort of movement through the two vowel sounds which make it up).

In the verb form, the second syllable is stressed, meaning that the same ‘o’ in the first syllable is unstressed, so is produced (there it is again) as a reduced, or weakened vowel sound: schwa.

This is also true in the following family of words - can you identify the strong and weak sounds in these three words?

Photograph / photographer / photographic

3. Schwa is an ‘off beat’ in the rhythm of English

Thinking beyond word level, and into phrases and sentences, where more than one word is spoken together, schwa works as a kind of low-effort ‘filler’ to maintain a rhythm in longer English utterances.

English is a stress-timed language, meaning that it has a rhythm based on the intervals between strong syllables in a stretch of speech. Say the following sentence, and listen for the strong syllables (any ‘beats’ in the sentence which are spoken more loudly and at a slightly higher pitch):

The man and his dog went to the canyons at noon.

You can probably hear that the stressed syllables are found in the nouns, as these carry the main meaning of the sentence - man, dog, canyons, noon. Of these, the word ‘canyons’ has more than one syllable, and as only one syllable in a longer word can be stressed, we need to focus on the first syllable ‘can’. The rest of the word is made up of an unstressed syllable.

Say the sentence again, and listen to the rhythm of the speech (you may need to ask someone else to say it out loud to hear this more clearly). You should hear that the ‘beats’ of the strong syllables are sounded at approximately equal intervals. The sentence has a regular rhythm.

Now say the sentence again (or ask someone else to say it so that you can focus on how it is pronounced) and listen to the unstressed syllables. What happens between the words ‘man’ and ‘dog’, and then between ‘dog’ and the stressed ‘can’ of ‘canyons’? 

Although the rhythm of the sentence is regular, meaning that there is the same amount of time between each strong syllable, there are 2 weak syllables between ‘man’ and ‘dog’, and 3 weak syllables between ‘dog’ and ‘can’. This means that our speech has to speed up to fill the second interval, to produce a greater number of syllables at a faster speed than in the first interval.

This is true of any stretch of speech in English - we are constantly required to change the speed of the syllables that we produce to keep the rhythm of the sentence according to the strong syllables it contains. This in itself requires effort (though first-language or highly fluent speakers of English don’t notice it). For this reason, most of the weak vowels that we produce in connected, natural-speed English are produced as schwas, no matter what sound they represent in a word. In the above sentence, the vowels in ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, ‘the’, ‘per’ (in ‘supermarket’) and ‘at’ are all schwas. In fact, up to 70% of the vowels that are produced in British English are schwas. That’s how much effort we need to save to get even the simplest of ideas out at natural speed.

So, schwa is a great tool to help English speakers save effort, increase speed and fluency, and keep the rhythm of speech regular. All of these aspects of English are challenges for second-language speakers, and contribute to general pronunciation issues which can affect overall fluency, and therefore confidence in speaking, which is a major barrier to language development. With attention to stress patterns, use of schwa and lots of practice and drilling with longer chunks of speech, these issues can be overcome and learners can speak with the fluency that their language brains demand.

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