IPA phoneme /ə/
The most common sound in all varieties of the English language is /ə/ – it is so important that it even has its own name – schwa. It corresponds to most syllables which do not carry the word stress. And it can actually substitute, obviously depending on the word, any of the five vowels (and also y): (a) about, ago and legal;(e) water, teacher and happen;(i) raisin, pencil and pupil; (o) doctor, lemon and bottom; (u) nature, supply and circus; (y) martyr. It is one of the two vowel sounds used in English for unstressed syllables, the other one being /ɪ/.
In many cases it occurs more than once in the same word, as in another, America, entertainment and political. Another useful example for students is a book and the book. It's probably easier to show students its use with two-syllable words for them to clearly contrast the stressed syllable in a single word.
In Received Pronunciation /ər/ is pronounced [ə] unless it is followed by a vowel, i.e. the "r" is normally silent unless it is followed by a vowel.
In General American the "r" is always pronounced.
There are places in the United Kingdom where the "r" is pronounced, and places in North America where it is not pronounced.
In Estuary English /əl/ is pronounced [o]. For example, in broad notation /ˈmɪdəl/ must be read in Estuary English as [ˈmɪdo].
- 1 /ə/ at the first syllable of a word
- 2 /ə/ in the middle of a word
- 3 /ə/ at the last syllable of a word
- 4 Weak forms
- 5 /əʊ, eə, ɪə/ and /ʊə/
- 6 Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
/ə/ at the first syllable of a word
- beginning with "a": about - account - admire - again - alone - along - among - appeal - appear - arise - around - away
- beginning with "o": occur - official - oppose - original
- /bə/: balloon - banana - Bolivia
- /kə/: capacity - community - computer - consider - continue - Kentucky
- /mə/: machine - material - Morocco
- /nə/: Nebraska
- /pə/: patrol - police
- /sə/: supply - support
- others: protect
Homophones: gorilla - guerrilla
/ə/ in the middle of a word
- as "a": Canada - company - organise - relative
- as "e": agency - camera - concentrate - enemy
- as "i": family - Philippines - policy
- as "o": Christopher - customer - ignorant - introduce
- as "u": circumstance - measurement - Portugal
- as "y": analysis - Pennsylvania
- as "ai": certainly
/ə/ at the last syllable of a word
- with "a": Africa - America - agenda - Argentina - Barbara - camera - Canada - China - comma - data - drama - extra - formula - idea - lasagnaAmE - Oklahoma - opera - pizza
- with "e": lasagneBrE
- unwritten /ə/: Edinburgh
- method - salad
- haddock - lilac - Potomac - project
See also IPA phonetic symbol [l̩]
- able - label - level - local - Michael - table - towel
Homophones: capital - Capitol; principal - principle
See also IPA phonetic symbol [m̩]
- album - awesome - bottom - freedom - maximum - minimum - problem - random - symptom - system
- unwritten schwa: alcoholism - criticism - enthusiasm - feminism - mechanism - optimism - orgasm - prism - rythm - sarcasm - tourism
See also IPA phonetic symbol [n̩]
- certain - common - foreign - human - London - mountain - person - reason - recent - season - second - woman
- With -en: children - citizen - happen - lengthen - open - sudden - weaken
- listen - often - soften
- fatten - frighten - rotten - tighten
- With -ion: action - fashion - junction - mention - passion - region - station
- With -re (American spelling -er): centre - fibre - litre - metre - theatre
- With -er: consider - offer - over - summer - teacher - under
- With -ber: December - member - November - number - October - remember - September
- With -ter: after - computer - character - daughter - letter - matter - quarter - sister - water - winter
- With -ther: another - brother - father - feather - leather - mother - other - weather - whether
- With -ar: angular - cellular - dollar - grammar - particular - popular - regular - similar
- With -ure: exposure - measure - pleasure - pressure - procedure
- With -ture: culture - feature - future - manufacture - nature - picture - structure - temperature
- With -our (American spelling -or): behaviour - colour - favour - honour - humour - labour - neighbour
- With -or: author - error - governor - major - minor - professor - senior
- With -tor: actor - director - doctor - editor - factor - investor - monitor - motor - sector - visitor
/aɪər/ or /aɪ.ər/ - /aʊər/ or /aʊ.ər/
Some words can be pronounced with a triphthong, like "fire" as /faɪər/ or "hour" as /aʊər/, and others as a disyllable like "buyer" as /ˈbaɪ.ər/ or "power" as /ˈpaʊ.ər/. In practice most people use the disyllabic pronunciation in all words (this implies "fire" as /ˈfaɪ.ər/ and "hour" as /ˈaʊ.ər/). See Triphthong.
- With "-ire": acquire - desire - entire - fire - hire - require - wire
- Other: liar - prior
- With "-our": flour - hour - our - sour
- Other: coward - flower - power - shower - tower
- With -ous: anxious - continuous - curious - dangerous - enormous - famous - nervous - numerous - obvious - previous - religious - serious - various
- With -us: focus - status - Uranus - Venus - versus - virus
- With -as: breakfast - Christmas - Douglas - Honduras - Kansas - Texas - Thomas
- With -ess: awareness - business - illness - pointless - politeness - regardless - weakness - witness
- carrot - Connecticut - diet - pilot - quiet - secret
- mammoth - twentieth - thirtieth - fortieth
- of - could've - should've - would've
Plurals of words ending in /ə/.
- cameras - commas - pizzas - operas
Many grammar words have a weak form, an unstressed form in which the vowel is reduced to /ə/ or /ɪ/.
- /æ/: am /æm, əm, m/ - and /ænd, ənd, ən, n/ - can /kæn, kən/
- /ɔː/: /fɔːr, fər/
- /ʊ/: could /kʊd, kəd/
- /ʌ/: but /bʌt, bət/
/əʊ, eə, ɪə/ and /ʊə/
The phonemes /əʊ, eə, ɪə/ and /ʊə/ shouldn't be analyzed as /ə/+/ʊ/, /e/+/ə/, /ɪ/+/ə/ and /ʊ/+/ə/. For example, in American English /əʊ/ sounds [oʊ], which indicates that the GOAT vowel (another name for /əʊ/) doesn't have necessarily a schwa sound.
Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1
Preconceived ideas and other interferences from L1 obviously interfere in many cases with how students perceive - and pronounce - sounds/words in English. The schwa is possibly the sound that causes most disbelief among students already inclined to be wary of a teacher's latest attempts at perfecting their pronunciation. If you manage to convince them that teacher and creature actually rhyme, you're well on the way to winning 'em over.
- Ganske, Kathy (2008) Mindful of Words: Spelling and Vocabulary Explorations 4-8, p. 62. Guilford Press At Google Books
- Giegerich, Heinz J. (1992) English Phonology: An Introduction, p. 69. Cambridge University Press At Google Books
- John Wells's phonetic blog, triphthongs, anyone?