Be like a schwhat?
If that was your first reaction to this blog title, you’re not alone. Most English speakers don’t know what a schwa is, even though it’s the most commonly used sound in the English language. Ask someone who’s learning English as a second language, however, and they’ll probably know straight away what it is.
I mentioned in an earlier blog that the little quirks of the English language make it one of the hardest to learn, and it was in fact a student from China who mentioned schwa to me. I host Chinese students who are visiting America to improve their English, and they were talking about schwa. Not knowing what it was, I of course Googled it, and, using the most simplified explanation, it’s basically the ‘uh’ sound that we place on any vowel when it’s not stressed.
Take, for example, the words tomorrow, level, doctor, and theater. Each of them contain a schwa, or uh, in place of the normal vowel sound. Tomorrow, level, doctor, theater. They’re each unstressed vowels, and you can probably think of many more because, like I said, it’s the most common sound in the English language. And, in case you’re wondering, its symbol in the dictionary is like an upside down ‘e’, or /ə/
Of course, to make things even harder for an English learner, any word can be spoken with or without a schwa. Most commonly, the word ‘the’ is typically spoken with schwa – thuh -, but when stressed for emphasis ‘It’s the most important thing’, or when spoken before a vowel, ‘Where are the eggs?’ the vowel sound becomes a long e, not a schwa.
Another example is ‘man’, where the a keeps its full sound. But when you say postman, the first syllable is stressed, so the ‘a’ in ‘man’ becomes schwa – postm/ə/n
And then there’s the tendency to just drop the schwa sound altogether. For example, chocolate is often spoken as choclat, and different becomes diffrent when spoken.
Ultimately, schwa is a lazy sound, it takes no effort other than using your vocal cords. There’s no tongue positioning, or lip shaping to making the sound, it just happens. So, next time you’re working to a deadline, or you’re hit with writer’s block, make like a schwa and become unstressed.