[Home]Schwa

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The linguistic word for the shortest, most indistinct vowel sound in English and most other languages.  It's something like "uh", but even that is too specific.  It's pretty much never stressed, because if a schwa syllable were to be stressed, it becomes something more distinct.

It can be represented in any number of ways in English.  Here are some examples collected from at least three sources (in each case the letter pronounced as schwa has been made bold):

around; synthesis; harmony; medium; about; annihilate; obey; above; open; lesson; calcium; gorgeous; certain...

In several words, one syllable is often pronounced shwa, particularly when spoken casually, but sometimes as a more distinct sound, usually short "i", like in the following (N.B. The short "i" sound is not a schwa --M-A):
principle, foreign, syringe, decimalisation, ...

Those examples sound completely different from the first examples, though.  Is a schwa not a phone at all, but a modifier?  The 'ih' sound from decimal is quite short and hard, and totally different from the 'um' in medium.  --Vitenka
Thta's why I marked some as not very good examples - it depends on your accent.  A schwa is a vowel sound, nothing else.  It's the most indistinct one you can think of, and accounts for a huge proportion of spoken vowels.  When looking at the examples above, don't think about how they should be said, but rather about how they'd actually be said, fast, in the middle of a sentence.  Your brain may say that that's the same thing, but it's not. --M-A



So, it's the 'h' in 'uh' (the first h in uhhh, not the drawn out ending sound.) ?  --Vitenka
Er, well, sortof.  I'm impressed by your attempts to split up the component sounds of "uhhh" :-)  It's the vowel sound in "Nyuhuh?" or "BuhDuh?" (as mentioned on NoNoNoNo).  I think the best way to know what it sounds like is to look at examples like the five above.  --AC
But each of those sounds completely different to me.  Vowel sounds are certainly very overloaded and interchangeable in places, but those aren't they.  You've got the A from apple, the i from me myself and I the o is practically a word by itself (Can't think of another word that uses it quite like that)...
Hmm.  Take a closer look and see whether I'm giving bad examples (definitely possible) or you're misunderstanding:

about = "uh - bout" .  It's definitely not got the "a" from "apple" - "aabout" is not how I've ever heard anyone pronounce  "about" with that "a", anyway.  Also think of the first syllable in "around", "afoot", and so on.

annihilate = "an - neye - uh - late".  It's the second "i" that's a schwa here - the first is the long "i" from "me myself and I", as you say.  The second is a kind of "uh", though... yes?

obey - I have sometimes heard this pronounced "oh - BAY", but I was thinking of the (more normal?) pronunciation "uh - BAY".  As with all schwa sounds, it's not emphasised at all - the emphasis here is on the "bey".

Does that help clarify?  Or do we just pronounce words rather differently?  Or something else?  --AlexChurchill

Yeah - it's the second one.  All of those a ones are pronounced with the same hard a sound.  I was thinking the wrong i - I think I now know what you mean.  It's the 'er' from afternoon, no?

Yes.  It's always hard to communicate precise pronounced sounds when the medium doesn't allow one to actually say the words to someone :)  --AC



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