Did you know that the most common vowel sound isn’t A, E, I, O, or U? It’s a sound called schwa, and any vowel can sound like it!
In this lesson, we’re going to talk about the most common (but secret!) sound in American English pronunciation. Are you familiar with the most common vowel sound in the English language? Well, you are about to meet the schwa sound.
The schwa is probably the most important sound in the English language, but you probably never heard of it in your other English classes! In fact, it is the most common vowel sound in the English language. It’s such an important part of the English language, so we want to make sure we dedicate an entire lesson to it.
So, what is the schwa sound?
The schwa is a phonetic vowel sound. It’s defined as the unstressed central vowel (as in a mom e nt a go), and represented by the symbol /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It’s that “uh” sound that is found in the unstressed syllables of words, no matter how they’re spelled. Schwa is a very short, neutral vowel sound, and like all other vowels, its exact quality depends on the consonants that surround it.
Believe it or not, this little sound will help you immensely with your pronunciation, and your overall English fluency. The “schwa” sound is considered a lazy utterance that is used instead of the actual pronounced syllable in many American English words. By listening to native English speakers, you’ll hear that many English words have this particular sound. Over time, you’ll not only be able to hear the sound, but you will also be able to use it yourself! This is a guaranteed way to sound more like a native English speaker.
Although this particular vowel sound is called the schwa, but the name is not important. What is important to know is that, when you have an English word that has two or more syllables (or parts) — like the word “today” (to-day) — you will have at least one syllable that is not stressed. The syllable that’s weak could be a schwa sound. It makes a kind of “uh” sound. (It’s a funny sound! 😆)
What words contain a schwa sound?
Even though a word is spelled one way, you can’t assume that all the letters will make the sound they normally make on their own, or in other words. The schwa is specifically a vowel sound. It’s the sound of the ‘a’ in alone and sofa, the ‘e’ in system, ‘i’ in easily, ‘o’ in gallop, and ‘u’ in circus.
Think about the word ‘pencil.’ Try saying it out loud. Do you notice how the first syllable is strong (pen-), and the second syllable (-cil) is weak and sounds like ‘Uh?’
Think about the word ‘question.’ The strong syllable is the first one (question), and the second syllable kind of sounds like “uh” again.
Now, think about the word ‘famous.’ The first syllable is strong again, and the second syllable is that weak, “uh” sound.
So, even though the spelling is different for all of these words, the schwa sound makes those weak syllables all sound alike.
Here are some other words that contain a schwa sound (there are many, many more!):
Sometimes, a word will have two schwa:
It’s also important to note that, in American English, we also tend to delete a schwa when it appears in a mid-word syllable that comes after the stressed syllable. For example:
- separate (when used as an adjective)
- elaborate (when used as an adjective)
Do any other languages use the schwa sound?
You might already be very familiar with the schwa sound. Here is a list of other world languages that incorporate this vowel sound:
- Portuguese (European and African, but not Brazilian)
Make sure you pay attention when you’re speaking to figure out where you should use a schwa sound. Here’s a link to Gabby’s video lesson for you to learn more: