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, focus
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|
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|
|address (n)||address (v)|
|Stressed O||Reduced O|
|Stressed E||Reduced E|
|Stressed I||Reduced I|
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.
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