A schwa is a mid-central vowel sound, characteristic of a very relaxed vowel sound. You pronounce it like the first vowel sound in the English word /about/. How a schwa is produced, stressed or unstressed, depends on the language and the specific definition of the sound.
A schwa is pronounced as a neutral, relaxed, and toneless vowel sound. Some languages incorporate stressed schwas. However, in most variations of English, a schwa is known as an unstressed sound. The International Phonetic Alphabet has assigned the symbol [ə] for a schwa vowel.
This particular vowel is the most common in the English language. A schwa is produced when the articulators (lips, tongue, and jaw) are entirely relaxed. Hence, the short, neutral and toneless sound, compared to other vowels.
The Schwa Vowel And Stressed vs. Unstressed Sounds
The quality of the schwa vowel depends on the consonants surrounding it. Therefore, it is not produced precisely alike in all instances, but it occurs mainly in unstressed syllables in words in English. English also classifies it as a reduced vowel, shortened and produced in a “weakened” manner when in an unstressed position.
The following are some examples of the schwa vowel in different words (schwa vowels in bold):
If you say these words aloud, you may notice that the schwa vowel is pronounced quicker and with much less emphasis than the other vowels in the word. This way of pronunciation is because the schwa is unstressed. The pronunciation is similar to /uh/ but more neutral.
There are essential differences between stressed and unstressed sounds. Certain syllables have more stress than others in a multisyllabic word. An example is the word /elephant/, which has three syllables /e-le-phant/.
Note that a vowel is necessary to make up a syllable.
You generally produce stressed syllables with more emphasis (slightly louder and longer), more energy, and more precise articulation. The unstressed syllables are pronounced more softly and quickly, with less clarity. This way of pronunciation ensures a clear contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables.
This concept of stressed and unstressed sounds is essential for some languages as it helps listeners understand the message. The stressed parts mainly carry the most important aspects of a message.
Can A Schwa Be Stressed?
There is some inconsistency about whether a schwa should be stressed or not. To add to this discrepancy, there seem to be two meanings of a schwa. Going by the definition that a schwa is an unstressed and neutral vowel in English, the schwa sound is unstressed.
But suppose the definition is that the schwa is a mid-central vowel using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) system. In that case, the stress depends on the characteristics of a particular language. The IPA classifies vowels by looking at which part of the tongue is involved (front, middle, or back) and whether the vowel is produced with an open or closed mouth posture.
In short, the answer to whether a schwa can be stressed is yes. It may be beneficial to refer to the schwa as a “mid-central vowel” when stressed in phonetics and phonology. This can happen following the second interpretation of a schwa – any mid-central vowel rounded or unrounded stressed or unstressed.
Some languages do stress the schwa vowel. Romanian is one of these languages, as well as Welsh and Bulgarian. The schwa is treated differently in many different languages.
In Korean, the schwa is barely used and is an alternative to another sound. In Malay, the schwa is always unstressed except in a particular informal dialect where it is stressed.
In Hindi, a formal phonological rule says that the schwa at the end of words is always deleted. This rule is similar to the deletion rule in American English, where a schwa is often removed from the middle of the word. An example is when family is pronounced as fam-ly).
How Is A Schwa Produced When It Is Unstressed?
The schwa vowel is produced in the most relaxed manner compared to all the other vowels. In English, it is produced as unstressed. The lips and tongue are neutral and comfortable, with the jaw hanging loosely open. We articulate the schwa in the throat with the vibration of relaxed vocal folds.
It is the least constructed vowel in the English language. Other vowels such as /e/, /a/ and /i/ are all produced with specific criteria. For example, they are either produced using the tongue’s front, middle or back in a closed or open way.
Interesting Facts About A Schwa
- The word “schwa” originally comes from Hebrew. In Hebrew, “shva” was a marking written under certain letters to show the “eh” sound. The first instance of the word “schwa” used was by German linguists in the 19th century, ensuring the German spelling.
- The unstressed schwa is common in English because English classifies as a stress-timed language. Stress-timing refers to the rhythm of the language, where each syllable is regularly timed due to their stress patterns. If you want to speed up the rhythm, then you shorten the distance between stressed syllables (so basically shortening the schwa vowels in words).
- The schwa can be deleted or added to words in English and other languages. The term separate is more often than not pronounced as sep-rate, removing the schwa vowel.
- In some words with many adjacent consonants, that could make the word difficult to pronounce; a schwa is placed between these consonants. For example, some would pronounce a realtor as a real-i-tor.
A schwa vowel is unstressed in English, primarily defined as an unstressed, neutral, and toneless vowel. However, from a universal perspective, and if the definition is that a schwa is a mid-central vowel, then a stressed schwa is found in specific languages.
A schwa is produced with relaxed articulators and is typically the most commonly found – unstressed – vowel in the English language. It can be stressed in languages such as Bulgarian and Welsh.