What is a Schwa?

The term “Schwa” refers to the intonation in the English language, which is comparable to the short “u” sound /uh/. The schwa, however, is used in un-emphasized syllables.  In typical example words like another, away & again, you find the schwa sound at the beginning of the word. The schwa is usually indicated with an inverted letter e.

The word “schwa” comes from Hebrew, and it’s the most common vowel sound in the English language. The schwa appears almost once in every three vowel sounds made by a native English speaker. Any vowel letter can turn into the schwa sound. Only words that have two or more syllables might have a schwa, which is also known as the “mid-central vowel.” In an unstressed syllable, the schwa represents a mid-central vowel such as the second syllable in “buses” and in “woman.” One doesn’t need to spread the lips wide or round them to make it. Instead, the tongue, the jaw, and the lips remain relaxed when creating this vowel sound.

One can find the schwa in unstressed syllables of content words such as soldier, machine, and pursue. On these syllables, the spelling is any of e, a, and u, which makes it difficult to identify a schwa on spelling alone. Consider, for example, Orinda, which’s the name of a town in California, is pronounced /ər’in-də/. Here, the first vowel and the last vowel are reduced to schwa. Only the stressed vowel in the word, the second vowel, maintains its clarity.

The schwa sound can be omitted in some word endings comprising the sounds /l, m, n/ like little, fathom, or passion. Additionally, omitting a schwa tends to occur before /r/ in words such as history, dictionary, and camera.

Most multisyllabic words in the English language have weak syllables, where schwas are present. Teachers always ask their students to listen to the sound present in words when spelling them. But if students listen to the sounds in multisyllabic words, they’ll hear and spell the schwa sound. This is why kids commonly misrepresent the schwa vowel and spell “chikin” for “chicken” and “takin” for “taken.” Teachers need to encourage students to use their “spelling voice.” Therefore, for example, when spelling chicken, they will need to clearly say the syllable “/e/n/” as they spell the word. However, these misunderstandings usually disappear as a kid improves their knowledge of the English language and learns about conventional alternatives for representing sounds.

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