An old trick question: what is the most common vowel in talked English? Is it the a in cat? The o in top? The ee in keep? In fact, the answer is the puzzling little sound recognized as schwa.

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Schwa was first described to me as “English’s throwaway vowel,” a crude however apt definition. The term refers to the little vowel pronounced in the center of the mouth which girlfriend hear at the end of comma, the beginning of afraid, and the center of salamander. If friend speak a non-rhotic accent, as would be the case for numerous Britons, schwa is likewise a usual realization of “er” at the finish of better. This English learning video clip offers a basic introduction come schwa (even if friend aren’t an English learner):

As indicated, schwa is traditionally stood for by the IPA prize ə (an upside-down “e”), signifying a vowel pronounced smack dab in the center of the collection space. As any kind of English phonetician will tell you, however, this a tad misleading as much as English is concerned. Our certain brand that schwa in truth represents a number of collection which differ depending on the indigenous they appear in.

To use a well-worn example, Americans do a slight difference between the “schwa” at the finish of Rosa’s and the “schwa” in ~ the finish of roses. The collection in the previous is pronounced fairly close to the “classic” schwa sound (i.e. Appropriate in the center of the mouth). The e in “Roses,” however, is pronounced lot closer (or “higher”), v a vowel an ext or less equidistant in between the “ee” in feet and also the “oo” in goose (i.e. IPA <ɨ>).

And there space “alternate” schwas also less obvious to the nude ear. Because that example, this 2007 research finds that the schwa in the first syllable the begin is closer come the “i” in American kit, while the schwa in the second syllable that probable is closer to the “oo” in the word foot*. English “schwa” is possibly a ceiling term explicate any variety of unstressed vowels, even if these actually vary in pronunciation.

Why is it we don’t an alert these variations? come look in ~ one hypothetical analogy, if the “e” sound in dress were sometimes pronounced through the “a” sound in father, such a difference would be quite obvious. But English schwa is a very, very quick vowel. To give a framework of reference, this examine on the English that Drogheda (a city ~ above the East coast of Ireland) uncovered that schwa was almost 1/2 the duration that the following shortest vowel (the “i” in kit). This collection is often pronounced so easily that it takes the sharpest of ear to notification its an exact phonetic properties.

Of course, many foreign languages have actually no schwa-like vowel, the absence of which outcomes in a disproportionate re-publishing of pronunciation obstacles for English learners. The standard schwa sound is no particularly challenging to do (just grunt and you’ve basically got it), however understanding how to use schwa in English is hardly intuitive. If ns were Spanish, for example, I’d probably have actually a tough time associating the “o” in renovate v such one “un-o-like” sound.

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Given the object of this site, I’ll conclude with something I’m curious about with regards to schwa: exactly how does it differ from interval to accent? The 2007 research I attached to over indicates part slight distinctions within American English (for example, Roses and Rosa’s are actually an unified for some Americans). What other means does schwa vary from one interval to another?

*Note to the phonetically inclined: I’m extrapolating here based upon their statement around the average F2 the this vowel. Looking at the graph they provide, I’d to speak the schwa in “probable” would certainly be much more accurately rendered <ɤ>.