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English Schwa Sound [ə] – What It Is & How To Get It Right!

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There was a time when I didn’t have a clue what the “schwa” [ə] sound was.

I’d heard people say this strange word – “SCHWA” – and it got me thinking “What the hell are they talking about?! It must be something quite complicated because it sounds smart…”

As is often the case though, the seemingly complicated matter turned out to be a very simple thing – the “schwa” [ə] sound is nothing more than an unstressed vowel sound which occurs in A LOT of English words:

  • About [əˈbaut]
  • Bank account [bæŋk əkaunt]
  • I don’t know what to do! [ˈaɪ ˈdount ˈnou ˈhwat tə duː]
  • Can you help me? [kən ju ˈhelp ˈmiː]

So far so good, right?

Well, turns out it’s not all that simple! 😉

There are a lot of languages in the world, and it’s not that easy for everyone to get the schwa sound just right.

Recently, for example, I received a comment by one of my blog commentators Juhapekka in which he raises concerns over pronouncing the English schwa sound while being a Finnish speaker himself.

Here’s what Juhapekka has to say:

Generally speaking, I have always problems to pronounce schwa correctly. I read your article about equating English sounds to one’s native language sounds but I didn’t get the schwa right.

The problem is that we don’t have schwa-sound in my native language Finnish but we have similar ö-sound in Finnish. Ö is somewhat schwa-like but the problem is that ö is strongly stressed and I have big problems to pronounce ö as unstressed.

If I managed to pronounce ö as unstressed, then unstressed ö would be perhaps at least sufficiently similar to schwa for my ears. So theoretically my problem is quite solved but practically I have big problems. I know that I could omit schwa in some cases altogether because schwa is so weak sound but can you help me to get the schwa right?

Well, needless to say, I recorded a video where I’m addressing Juhapekka’s issue with getting the “schwa” [ə] sound right ❗

Also, when watching the video above (alternatively you can listen to the podcast in case you can’t access YouTube video content for some reason) you’ll find out the following:

  • What’s the BEST way of pronouncing the “schwa” sound;
  • Why you should only EVER look at the “schwa” [ə] sound as part of the entire sentence!

So, don’t delay – start watching the video above this article right now and ask me any questions you may have!

Cheers,

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hi Juhapekka,

    I’ll try to get your name pronunciation better next time around – I promise! 😉

    Now, speaking of the words “Manchester” or “Worcestershire” – it’s not the schwa sound again.

    In this particular words it’s again the letter ‘R’ that makes it more difficult for you to pronounce it; and the kind of pronunciation that you’re trying to nail is the BRITISH one in this case where the ‘R’ sound is virtually omitted but the sound that you’ve got to get right in this case isn’t your typical schwa sound.

    If you’re trying to pronounce Manchester” or “Worcestershire” the way Brits do, all those vowel sounds preceding ‘R’ letters are quite stressed and they’re not real “shwa” sounds.

    I’m not saying you’re not struggling with it and that it is very easy to get those sounds right; all I’m saying is – it’s not really the “schwa” sound that presents you such difficulties.

    Judging from all these examples I’m more inclined to say it’s the ‘R’ sound that is the tricky one for you!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Juhapekka

    Hi Robby!

    When it comes to the word “hamburger” you’re absolutely right: I confused schwa and the preceding vowel of R and I have never thought about it this way like you described it. It’s good to know that phonetic transcriptions can be so misleading if you haven’t sufficient background knowledge. I kind of knew that some perceive R as a vowel and some other as a consonant but I thought it was just the matter of semantics and not anything more. I have never seriously thought that perceiving R as a vowel could help you to pronounce it like native English speakers.

    And speaking of the difficulty of schwa and other schwa-related problem words I think you’re at least partly right but maybe you’re still partly wrong but I’m not sure. I have had problems with the words like “circumstance” or “Manchester” or “Worcestershire”, for example. If I try to pronounce the word “Manchester”, I think my pronunciation is somewhat better when I pronounce it with R:s (“my English R” is less rolled than “my Finnish R” but it’s still rolled and “native English R” is non-rolled) but when I pronounce it without R I kind of blurt it easily: ‘mæntʃestÖÖ which sounds terrible! The same goes with Worcestershire: ‘wu:stəʃə becomes ‘wu:stÖʃÖ (terrible!). Schwa is difficult in itself.

    When I had heard words with schwa first time a long time ago I thought that schwa sounds weak and a bit weird but it still sounds like Finnish ö or something like that. And this equating is surely one of those reasons why I have problems with schwa. Now I think it’s the best to perceive schwa as its own unique sound but it’s difficult because schwa sounds dangerously similar for Finns. And the second reason why schwa is so difficult is that after all vowel reduction, unstressed syllables and the meaning of schwa is alien for me because there isn’t any kind of vowel reduction in Finnish at all. Even in the unstressed syllables of the Finnish words vowels are either pronounced as they are or they are omitted completely (but there are not any silent letters in Finnish). This is surely one reason which makes English pronunciation and especially schwa-sound difficult for some foreigners and especially for Finns because there isn’t any kind of vowel reduction in Finnish. I have actually always wondered why English speakers have to reduce their vowels or unstress some syllables so much because it makes pronunciation and listening comprehension more difficult at least in my opinion. Maybe I’ll change my mind in the future when I’m getting used better and better with vowel reduction, unstressing and with other peculiarities of English language but my native background remains still the same.

    And as the curiosity if I’m precise you actually pronounce my name like Jhuhaphekha with “aspirated j and p and k” and you forget to double k:s. My name should be pronounced Juhapekka with “completely non-aspirated j and p and k” and with “double k” kk. It’s Juhapekka, not Jhuhaphekha! And of course I don’t mind if you pronounce my name as you pronounce it but just for curiosity.

    I try to apply your advice into practice and to let my pronunciation simply flow but it’s easier said than done.

  • Hi Juhapekka,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re confusing the schwa sound and sounds you have to produce in words such as “hamburger”.

    You see, the ‘R’ sound changes everything and the preceding vowel isn’t actually your typical schwa sound! Your tongue has to be positioned completely differently when pronouncing the letter ‘R’ – and did you actually know ‘R’ is a VOWEL?

    So in reality the word hamburger should be perceived as a combination of the following sounds:

    h – consonant
    ə – schwa vowel

    m – consonant

    b – consonant

    r – r vowel

    g – consonant

    r – r vowel

    Basically what I’m saying is – there aren’t any schwa sounds before the ‘r’s; and pronouncing this word is a completely different ballgame altogether.

    So I’m thinking you can get the schwa sound just right (and you’re right – practice is the key!) but the other schwa-like sounds you’re still struggling with aren’t really schwas! Just because the phonetic transcription looks like it’s a schwa – ə: – doesn’t mean it’s pronounced like one.

    In the case of “hamburger”, for example, it’s all about the ‘R’ sound and how you have to position your tongue (imagine your tongue is a snake and when you pronounce ‘R’ you have to move it back so that it’s sitting in a cobra-like way; something like this ¬|_ if it makes sense!)

    In other schwa-related problem words you have, I’m pretty sure, you also struggle with the letters that come AFTER!

    Just think about it, and correct me if I’m wrong?

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • Hi Vaison,

    Yes, it’s often the case that something you just couldn’t pronounce a while ago becomes second nature later on when you put a lot of effort into improving your pronunciation!

    Thanks for commenting!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Vaison

    I had to deal with it long time ago.

    For instance, in my language, spanish, there are only FIVE vocals A (Cat), E (Red), I (Free), O (Talk) and U (Book), and 2 years ago I had problems with all the english vocals, and, of course, the schwa sound.

    After practising a lot I got a proper pronunciation, most of the vocals and consonants except the schwa sound.

    I realised that I just had to relax my mouth while pronouncing a mix sound between my spanish vocals A (Cat) and E (Red). I realised that the schwa sound is a suave sound and very easy.

    Cheers.

  • Juhapekka

    Maybe I didn’t explain my problem clearly enough in my original comment and therefore you didn’t understand the seriousness of my pronunciation problem fully but your video helped me anyway. By quote that is in your blog post above I meant that when I (and other Finns as well) try to pronounce English words that contains schwa it’s very difficult to pronounce some of these kind of words correctly although we’d know very well that syllables with schwa are pronounced as unstressed. Good example of those kind of difficult words is the word “hamburger”, for example. Its pronunciation is ‘hæmbərgər but when pronounced by Finn it becomes easily ‘hæm’bör’gör which sounds completely wrong, of course. In fact, it’s possible to get almost all the sounds wrongly: ‘häm’pör’kör. This is possible because there isn’t necessarily clear distinction between p and b or between k and g in Finnish and Finnish r is always strongly rolled r and furthermore Finnish p and k are completely non-aspirated. Non-aspiration in this context means that when Finn hears ‘hæmbərgər he actually hears it as ‘hæmbhərghər. Personally I don’t have much problems with English b and g anymore but English speakers can disagree with me because I don’t make as clear distinction between p and b and k and g as native English speakers. I’m making this pronunciation mistake with schwa almost all the time, especially in some words, but it’s not as bad as it was years ago but it’s still too bad. Even though I know really well that syllables with schwa are unstressed in every word I easily kind of pronounce them as stressed. The same goes with the word “about” which is pronounced ə’baʊt but if I’m not careful it becomes ‘öbaʊt (note that the place of apostrophe changed and so the stress and the intonation changed as well). Your advice to imagine that schwa isn’t even there but still know it’s kinda there: ‘baʊt ə’baʊt helped me but I’m afraid that if I don’t pay particular attention I pronounce it wrongly. Hopefully practice makes the master also in this case. Some people can say that this schwa-pronunciation problem isn’t so serious but I think it is because schwa is very common sound in English and when you get schwa wrongly also the intonation and stressed syllables of words change. I don’t know exactly why but anyway this problem is like some kind of “bad magic”.

    Even though schwa [ə] and “Finnish ö” are somewhat similar and the only differences between “schwa [ə]” and “Finnish ö [ø̞]” are the roundness of lips (schwa is obviously unrounded and relaxed) and frontness (schwa is central and Finnish ö is front) according to IPA vowel chart, there is still other differences that I can’t explain but the main difference is that schwa is very weak and “Finnish ö” is strong if it’s artificially in English words (though it’s not necessarily strong or stressed at all in Finnish because Finnish is quite stress-free language but it’s different story altogether). That’s why it’s maybe much better that I forget “Finnish ö” completely when pronouncing schwa and I don’t try to equate schwa to it at all and I simply perceive schwa as its own unique different sound although it’s difficult. But anyway your video helped me and I realized better why I couldn’t pronounce words with schwa correctly. I think it was partly because of I didn’t relax my mouth sufficiently (It’s somewhat paradoxical that I have problems to pronounce schwa correctly because schwa is “relaxed sound” and it should be easy to pronounce “relaxed sounds” because it doesn’t require almost any effort!) and partly because of I read that schwa doesn’t have exact and standard pronunciation and partly because of I didn’t realize properly that probably the best way to pronounce schwa is to imagine that it’s not even there and I didn’t know how to apply this advice into practice and because of other reasons and you partly mentioned some of them in your video and in your blog post but I don’t elaborate this issue more because I’m afraid I’m making this issue too complicated. Hopefully I’m getting at least slightly better at pronouncing certain English words as time goes by.

    Speaking of Finnish ö and German ö after research I finally found corresponding IPA symbols and Finnish ö is probably mid front rounded vowel ø̞ in IPA and close-mid front rounded vowel ø (“Danish ö”) doesn’t represent Finnish ö at all although many resources recommend incorrectly it. In my opinion, “Danish ö” ø is somewhere between “Finnish y” (don’t exist in English but is somewhat similar to “German ü”) and “Finnish ö” and I think that Finns can hear “Danish ö” ø as “Finnish y”, which is obviously
    completely different sound, if they don’t listen carefully. And I’m not sure what kind of sound “German ö” exactly is but it probably depends on German region where a speaker is coming from but according to Wikipedia it can be either mid or close-mid front rounded vowel or something nearly similar. I’m not sure at all how to describe these differences correctly from the point of view of linguistics but for my ears “German ö” is softer, milder and weaker ö-sound than “Finnish ö”. Corresponding articles in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid_front_rounded_vowel , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close-mid_front_rounded_vowel and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-central_vowel .

    And speaking of analyzing, I know how detrimental analyzing is for fluency and for overall pronunciation but my university studies encourage me to analyze but I try to keep my analyzing mode and my non-analyzing mode separate and I try to avoid getting bogged down on individual sounds too much.