jmif   Monday, September 01, 2003, 19:51 GMT
The schwa sound sounds different to me depending on the word.
Does it sond different for natives too?
If not, then, how should I pronunce it?
Jim   Tuesday, September 02, 2003, 00:31 GMT
If you look at the IPA vowel chart you'll see that there is a bit of fexibility in what can be characterised as the sound of schwa.

In fact if you go here

and click on

Australian English Monophthongs
Australian English Diphthongs
New Zealand English Monophthongs
New Zealand English Diphthongs
British RP English Monophthongs
British RP English Diphthongs
American English Monophthongs
American English Diphthongs

you'll see that the same is true for all of the vowels.

But I don't think that these variations are that much to worry yourself about unless you're into linguistics. Don't try to make a distinction between the schwa sound sound depending on the word but if one pops up, fine (only it shouldn't be noticable unless you pay a heap of attention).
Julian   Tuesday, September 02, 2003, 01:30 GMT
The schwa represents the lightly pronounced, unaccented "uh" sound in many English words that have more than one syllable. Of course, certain words are pronounced differently from one region to another, so in some instances, the vowel sound is no longer a schwa but takes on a different vowel sound altogether. For instance, some might pronounce the "i" in "happily" and "verity" as a schwa, whereas others might pronounce it as a barred-i.

The schwa sound can be represented by any of the English vowels:
a - about, appropriate, emphasis, America, Canada (2nd and last "a")
e - belligerent, mathematics, understand
i - cabinet, maximize (1st "i"), minimize (2nd "i"), legitimate (2nd "i") --although in some English dialects these are pronounced with a barred-i.
o - harmony, lemon, comforter (2nd "o"), attention, vacation
u - medium, circus, platinum, aluminum (AmE)
y - syringe, vinyl, ethyl
ai - mountain, certain, villain
ou - vicious, nauseous, jealous
???   Tuesday, September 02, 2003, 12:16 GMT
So if a spelling system were put in place, would a schwa be a separate vowel?
jmif   Tuesday, September 02, 2003, 17:41 GMT
So schwa isn't much different from word to word. That's what I wanted to know. Nouw I should listen and find out how it really sounds like.
Thank you for the information.
Ryan   Tuesday, September 02, 2003, 21:06 GMT
Yes, schwa is a distinct vowel sound that is not represented by a single letter. Perhaps there should be a letter to represent it.

Jim   Thursday, September 04, 2003, 00:22 GMT
Let's just set things straight. There is a difference between sounds and letters ... of course.

Schwa represents a vowel but it is not a vowel. Schwa is a letter. You can find this letter in the IPA. Schwa is the letter which looks like an upside-down "e".

So, ???, you ask "if a spelling system were put in place, would a schwa be a separate vowel?" I suppose you mean "would the sound of schwa be represented by its own letter?"

Well, what do you mean by "a spelling system"? There already is a spelling system in place where this vowel is basically ignored. Some proposals for spelling reform continue to ignor it. However, this vowel cannot be ignored if your spelling system is to be a phonemic one.

When it come to phonemic spelling reform, the big trouble with using the Roman alphabet for English is that there are about four times as many vowels than there are letters to cope with them. The most troublesome vowel of all is the unstressed central vowel (represented by schwa).

Like Ryan suggests, perhaps there should be a letter to represent this distinct vowel. If we were to add a letter to our alphabet, I'd suggest adding the letter schwa.
Gosia   Wednesday, September 10, 2003, 17:22 GMT
I can't agree with the idea of adding the letter shwa to represent this vowel because the shwa sound appears only in unstressed syllables.There are words which are pronounced either with a shwa or with a full vowel depending on the context(isolation or connected speech).If the shwa letter existed , the spelling of such words should differ according to the context.
And the symbol which looks like an upside-down "e" is not a letter but a phonetic symbol representing a sound!
Jim   Thursday, September 11, 2003, 03:59 GMT
And what about "Æ", "æ", "Ð", "ð", "þ" & "þ"? Are you going to tell us that these are not letters either? What is a letter if not a phonetic symbol representing a sound?

There is no schwa our alphabet but in the International Phonetic Alphabet it exists. The IPA consists of phonetic symbol representing a sound, or in other words letters, derived mostly from the Roman alphabet (there are a bunch of Greek letters in there too).

The vowel represented by schwa is as fully a vowel as any other. Sure, in connected speech other vowels can be unstressed and become /schwa/. But there are many words where this vowel occurs when the word is spoken in isolation too.

I think, if spelling were to be reformed, only the pronunciation of the word when spoken in isolation should be considered. Even still, however, you'd have to deal with this vowel.

For any spelling reform proposal to be phomenic this vowel must be indicated somehow. Adding schwa is one way of doing this but not the only way. It is possible to create a phonemic orthography using only the 26 letters we've got (hey, you could use binary).

Gosia, are you against the whole idea of spelling reform or do you just think that spelling need not represent speech?
Simon   Thursday, September 11, 2003, 08:25 GMT
Why "schwa"? Is it a German word meaning something specific?
Simon (quoting)   Thursday, September 11, 2003, 08:30 GMT
"The word 'schwa' comes from a Hebrew word, approximately
transliterated as 'sheva', or 'shewa', which means 'nothingness'.
The 'e' in the transliteration is a short phonetic [schwa] sound, ie
what some books call the 'neutral' vowel, the 'obscure' vowel, or the
'indeterminate' vowel. In Hebrew, there are two sorts of schwa. One
of them is a vowel sound which has a centralish quality; the other
signals the absence of a vowel - hence the 'nothingness' meaning.

To discover the reason, then, why there's a connection between the
word and the sound, we have to go back to the 'e' between the 'sh'
and the 'v' in the Hebrew word.

The name 'schwa' came into English via German. According to the OED,
the first time it was used in English was in 1895: see Peter Giles's
'A Short Manual of Comparative Philology for Classical Students',
page 134, beginning of section 169.

The actual [schwa] symbol, ie the inverted letter 'e', has been in
phonetics for much longer. The first person to use it with the
modern IPA value was the German linguist Johann Andreas Schmeller
(1785-1852) in 1821; many people subsequently used it during the
course of the 19th century, but the name of the symbol, schwa, didn't
surface in English until Giles and his 1895 book. Before Schmeller,
the symbol had been used, but for a totally different sound."
Zuza   Thursday, September 11, 2003, 16:19 GMT
Letters are signs which form the elements of written language. Do you normally write using the phonetic symbols you presented? I don't think so, because phonetic symbols are used for phonetic transcription, not in everyday writing. That is why schwa is a phonetic symbol but not a letter.
Are you also implying that words have no stress when spoken in isolation? That's a good one! Guess you must be American :))
Jim   Friday, September 12, 2003, 06:39 GMT
Okay, good point, Zuza. Nobody normally uses schwa as a letter when writing their language ... at least I don't know of any language which does.

As this symbol is not used this way, I suppose you could argue that it is not a letter. Still, we could add it to our alphabet and perhaps we should. If we did so then surely it would become a letter.

Zuza, you ask "Do you normally write using the phonetic symbols you presented?" Do you mean my little friends æsh, eð and þorn? Well, no, not normally but I'm not from Iceland.

Sure, "æ" & "ð" are symbols belonging to the IPA but they, and the others, belong to the Icelandic Alphabet too ... they were used in Old English also by the way. So these are definately letters.

Many of the phonetic symbols in the IPA are also members of alphabets (mostly the Roman and Greek ones). So, okay, schwa may not be a letter but being a phonetic symbol doesn't exclude something from being a letter.

In fact, the entire set of the lower case forms of letters of our alphabet plus "B", "G", "N" "R" & "H" are part of the IPA.

I'm not implying that words have no stress when spoken in isolation. I'm saying that there are vowels which are unstressed in certain words whether spoken in isolation or flowing speech.

For example, the "e" in "spoken", the last vowel of "isolation", the last "e" in "unstressed", the "ai" in "certain", the "er" in "whether", the list goes on & on.

Nor am I American :))
Simon   Friday, September 12, 2003, 12:48 GMT
Hard þorn or soft þorn?
Jim   Thursday, September 18, 2003, 00:28 GMT
Definately hard þorn. I don't þink a soft þorn is much of a þorn æt all.