The Schwa Sound

What is the Schwa sound?  

The schwa sound is THE most common sound in American English, although its pronunciation can vary based on the speaker’s accent or stress.  It’s little wonder, then, that learning how and when to produce the schwa sound is one of the most important keys to accent reduction. Learning common words with schwa sounds, as well as frequent schwa-consonant pairings can help you improve your pronunciation and sound more like a native speaker of English. 

What does it sound like?  The schwa is a soft, unstressed sound, represented phonetically as Ә. It sounds like a quick “uh”.    

Examples: about, balloon, nervous, focu

Why is it so important to know and use? 

All 5 vowels, A, E, I, O & U can sound the same if they are part of an unstressed syllable. Yes, the vowel within an unstressed syllable is usually reduced and becomes this neutral vowel called schwa.

Listen to the audio to how the following words are pronounced. Do you notice the changes in vowel sounds, depending on whether the syllable is stressed or reduced?    

 

Full vowel Reduced vowel
man salesman
pose purpose
race terrace
late chocolate
cord record
rage courage
fast breakfast
land England

Each vowel as the schwa sound

Need proof that ALL vowels can transform into the schwa sound?  Take a look at the chart below as you listen to the audio recording. The underlined section indicates which syllable is stressed. Notice how the vowels are reduced to schwa in each syllable that is NOT stressed. (Note: we have not included u because the schwa sound is so similar the two sounds are barely distinguishable): 

Stressed A Reduced A
absent about
address (n) address (v)
allergy allergic
Stressed O Reduced O
concert concern
product produce
offer offend

 

Stressed E Reduced E
envy enjoy
extra exact
empty employ
Stressed I Reduced I
invalid invalid
political politics
irritable irregular

 

Commonly mispronounced words with schwa

Common mispronunciations are made when the schwa sound is not used correctly along with proper syllable stress (word stress).

Yes, stressing the wrong syllable can cause great confusion in English communication.  Decide which vowels in the bold words are full and which should be reduced to make the meaning clear.  

  • She won the Nobel Prize for her noble work.  
  • The invalid has invalid insurance. 
  • Some of the personnel have personal problems. 
  • You won’t be eligible for that job if your handwriting is illegible
  • Can you pronounce those pronouns correctly?
  • That committee is a real life comedy.  
  • It’s advantageous to learn the advantages of this program.  
  • The installation has decayed over the past decade.  
  • Are you now content with the content of this report? 
  • He spent his entire career working for that aircraft carrier.  

To see a native speaker pronouncing the schwa sound to correct commonly mispronounced words, check out this video. 

Need help?

To learn more about English pronunciation and practice it in conversation, join SpeakUp, a dynamic program that engages you in authentic conversations on relevant topics and provides you with feedback from a professional and experienced English teacher.  The first week is free for you to try it out!  

Anita Collins

Anita Collins

Anita is a long-time English teacher and language enthusiast from Canada, currently living in the multilingual city of Montreal. She majored in linguistics, dabbled in translation, and has been teaching students from all over the world for over a decade. She now spends each morning trying to balance her two loves: planning the next trip and spoiling her beagle. The rest of her day she spends on curriculum design and language classes, with the beagle underfoot.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *