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How To Pronounce Schwa, The Most Common Vowel in English

Are you using the most common vowel in English? If you didn't grow up with English as your mother tongue, it's highly possible that you aren't using it enough, or even at all. Which vowel is it? The vowel!

Schwa? What's that? A schwa is a type of vowel, it kind of sounds like "uh". Linguists describe as a central, reduced vowel sound. This means that this vowel isn't very distinctive and is made in the center of your mouth. This is in contrast to the vowels found in stressed syllables, which are typically very distinctive because the place in the mouth where they are made, as well as the way the vocal tract changes when making these vowels gives them a distinctive and easily recognized sound. Some vowels that have very distinctive way of being pronounced include , , and . In American English, these vowels can be pronounced fully and clearly, such as when they are in a stressed syllable, or they can be reduced to some degree. When they are pronounced fully, they are made in a specific area in the mouth and the vocal tract changes quite a bit to make the vowel very distinctive.

For instance, is a low back vowel. It's distinctive because we open our mouths wide and pronounce this vowel in the back our mouths with our tongues lowered. It is distinct from , which is also a back vowel (pronounced in the back of the mouth), but is a high back vowel that is pronounced with a tongue that is raised and lips that are rounded. sounds very distinct from the other two since it is pronounced in the front of the mouth instead of the back, and the spread lips and high tongue height contribute to the unique sound of this vowel.

When they are reduced, these vowels, as well as others, aren't as distinctive, and are pronounced closer to the center of the mouth than when they are in a stressed syllable. Schwa is often referred to as a neutral vowel, since producing a doesn't require the vocal tract to change, whereas to create all other vowels something about the vocal tract needs to change in order to create a different sound.

Hindi speakers often don't use very much or at all, but native speakers of American English use it all the time. Since this vowel is so common, using it in your speech frequently will make it easier for others to understand you, and will help you sound more similar to someone who grew up speaking American English. A lot of people think it's better to fully pronounce their vowels, but this isn't what Americans do. Some vowels get pronounced "lazily" and get turned into a . If you don't use , but you are trying to change your pronunciation so others understand you easily, you need to start using it immediately. In terms of sounding more similar ot an American, the "correct" way of pronunciation includes making words in unstressed syllables with reduced vowels and using the .

All vowels in American English can reduced in American English and can sound like more a muffled, centralized versions of themselves, or like a ,. The vowel doesn't have a specific letter that represents it, any of the letters used in English could be used.

The Letter A

apart əˈpɑrt

The first syllable should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as or .

The Letter E

content (adj.) ˈkəntɛnt

The second syllable should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as or .

Notice that this word, the adjective content , is a heteronym with the noun content, which is mentioned in an example below. Heteronyms are spelled the same, but have different meanings and different pronunciations. These words shouldn't be pronounced the same, and they each have a in a different syllable.

The Letter I

heavily ˈhɛvəli

The second syllable should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as or .

The Letter O

content (noun) ˈkɑntɛnt

The first syllable should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as or .

Notice that this word, the adjective content , is a heteronym with the adjective content, which is mentioned in an example above. Heteronyms are spelled the same, but have different meanings and different pronunciations. These words shouldn't be pronounced the same, and they each have a in a different syllable.

The Letter U

census ˈsɛnsəs

The second syllable should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as or .

The Letter Y

synonymous səˈnɑnəməs

The first syllable's should be pronounced with , it should not be pronounced with any other vowel, such as . Some native American English speakers use , but a lot of Hindi speakers use instead of , so I would suggest centralizing the vowel and using .

If a syllable in a word isn't getting emphasized, that syllable's vowel is likely to be a .

Schwa in Filler Words

Filler words are used when are trying to think of what to say next but the words haven't come to us yet. While we're coming up with what we want to say, in the mean time we utter things such as "uh" and "um". These words contain the schwa sound. It makes sense, because we say these things to fill space, but we don't really want to emphasize them, so we use the reduced, central vowel when we fill in the gaps in our conversation with these words as well.

Schwa in Function Words

The words we use in our speech can be categorized into content words and function words. Content words contain the most important information that we trying to say. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adjectives are the parts of speech which are content words. American English speakers give content words special emphasis, or stress.

Function words are words that provide information to help our understanding and create relationships between the function words. Articles (like the, a, and an), prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, qualifiers, auxiliary verbs, and interrogatives are types of function words. American English speakers give function words less emphasis and use reduced vowels or schwas when saying them.

When we say that a syllable or words is stressed or that it is not stressed, one of the things that are a part of that is the vowel quality, or the type of vowel, that is being used. The type of vowel we use in a word is affected by the other syllables in that word, but also, particularly for words with one syllable, if that word is a function word or a content word, and if the speaker is giving that word special meaning for that context or not.

Since English is a stress based language, not all the words receive the same amount of emphasis. Within a sentence, content words get more emphasis, and function words get less emphasis. The function words are squished to make way for the content words in order to keep up the rhythm of English, and they are softer, shorter, have a lower pitch, and contain a reduced vowel like .

I would say most native speakers of Hindi don't reduce function words when they are speaking in English, but it stands out because native speakers of American English are not used to hearing small function words pronounced like that, and because those words are fully pronounced, it changes the rhythm of your speech. A really common area where this happens is with the definite article, "the". Even if I say the by itself, I usually don't use the pronunciation that starts rhymes with sea, although that is a possible pronunciation. In regular speech, American speakers generally pronounce "the" with a . However, native speakers of Hindi very often pronounce this word to rhyme with the American pronounciation of the word see, with the vowel, which sounds unusual and a bit foreign since this pronunciation is uncommon in casual speech. Try to pay attention to words like the, to, have, and can, which often are pronounced with the when they are said in sentences, especially in rapid speech.

Summary

The is the most common vowel sound in American English, but most people don't realize that. Many non native speakers of English don't use it in their speech frequently, and Hindi speakers often don't use it at all. Don't make the mistake of pronouncing your vowels too clearly. It isn't the way that native speakers of American English speak, and because they aren't used to hearing it, it will throw them off and actually make it harder to understand your speech.

Make sure that you pay attention to which syllables should be unstressed, as well as to which words are function words in your speech. When you are saying syllables and words that are unstressed, make an effort to include the short, centralized vowel in your speech. Since the is so common, using it more often it's a quick way to easily make your pronunciation easier to understand.


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