The schwa represents a mid-central vowel in an unstressed syllable, such as the second syllable of woman and the second syllable of buses. Any vowel letter can stand for the schwa sound.
Etymology:From the Hebrew, "to be even"
Examples and Observations:
- "Vowels change in quality when they are reduced. The reduced vowel tends to be not only very short, but also very unclear, producing an obscure sound that is hard to identify. Consider, as an example, the name of the California town Orinda, pronounced /ər'in-də/, with the first vowel and the last vowel reduced to schwa. Only the second vowel in the word, the stressed vowel, maintains its clarity. The other two vowels are very unclear."
(Judy B. Gilbert, Clear Speech: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English, 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005)
- Dialectal Variations in Schwa Usage
"If you listen for it, you can hear schwa in all sorts of places where syllables aren't stressed--for example, at the beginnings of words like official, occasion, event and fatigue. Many people . . . feel that 'schwa-ful' pronunciations are lazy, but really you would sound pretty odd if you did pronounce the full vowel in place of schwa in these words. Pronunciations like 'ohfficial' and 'ohccasion' sound unnatural and rather theatrical. Schwa also occurs in the middle of words like coronation and afterwards. Again, it would be peculiar not to sound schwa in this position--for instance, 'corohnation' for coronation. . . .
"Schwa usage varies greatly between dialects. Australian English speakers often put schwas in places where British and American speakers won't. Striking differences are also now appearing as a consequence of the worldwide spread of English."
(Kate Burridge, Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004)
- Schwa and Zero Schwa
"In terms of duration--a phonetic property that the IPA vowel chart does not indicate--schwa is typically quite short, and this short duration may co-vary with its tendency to be co-articulated. . . .
"[G]iven its short duration and its consequent tendency to camouflage itself to its context through co-articulation, schwa may be confused with its absence, setting up a situation in which schwa-zero alternations may take hold in a system . . .."
(Daniel Silverman, "Schwa." The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, ed. by Marc van Oostendorp et al. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
- Schwa and English Spelling
"For the most part, the schwa vowel sound in a two-syllable word is identified by the 'uh' pronunciation and sound.
"Oftentimes, children spell chocolate as choclat, separate as seprate, or memory as memry. The schwa vowel is thus omitted. The vowel sound schwa is also found in two-syllable words such as alone, pencil, syringe, and taken. Children commonly misrepresent the schwa vowel and spell these words: ulone for alone, pencol for pencil, suringe for syringe, and takin for taken. It is still the vowel in the unstressed syllable that is featured in this case . . .. This time, it is substituted with another incorrect vowel.
"These aforementioned misunderstandings generally disappear as the child advances in his reasoning and knowledge of the English language, learns conventional alternatives for representing sounds, and begins to apply patterning including syllables and a visual sense to his spelling."
(Roberta Heembrock, Why Kids Can't Spell: A Practical Guide to the Missing Component in Language Proficiency. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)