Ode To The Schwa

How do I love thee? Let me count the schwas.

Not exactly what Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Sonnet 43 . . . but we like it all the same. Why? Because it finally pays tribute to the most frequent vowel sound in English: the schwa.

What is the schwa and how does it sound?

Simply put, the schwa is a reduced vowel sound written as an upside-down and backwards ə in the International Phonetic Alphabet (the universal chart of symbols, representing all the possible sounds a human mouth can make).

Roughly pronounced “uh,” it’s been referred to as the laziest sound we can make, and we utter it more than we realize.

Every vowel in English, if unstressed, has the potential of being a schwa. Defined as “the sound of a in alone and sofa, e in system, i in easily, o in gallop, u in circus,” that basically describes our entire simple-vowel system. Impressive, huh?

As universal as the schwa seems to be, there are some quirks to it. There’s a tendency for it to fall silent altogether if it’s in the middle of a word, like in car(ə)mel, sep(ə)rate, ev(ə)ry, lit(ə)rally and choc(ə)late. Yet in other dialects it actually appears out of nowhere. This happens in older US English dialects and in Irish English with words like real(ə)tor, Kath(ə)leen, ath(ə)lete, gir(ə)l, fil(ə)m, kil(ə)n.

Why is it called schwa?

The first known usage of the word schwa in English came in 1895 from German. It came into German from the Hebrew shewa, which literally means “emptiness.” The same word in Hebrew also refers to a mark added to a letter—a diacriticto note the vowel /e/ or no vowel at all. Strangely there’s no schwa sound in Hebrew, so the meaning has nothing to do with the English “uh” pronunciation.

Ode to the schwa

Needless to say, we adore the schwa! So, here we celebrate the most ubiquitous sound in the English language, and possibly even the world, with a word-nerd, Dictionary.com ode.

Symbol of the unstressed syllable,
ə.

As our lazy tongues tire,
your sound so reliable.
Simple vocal vibrations,
tongue in resting position.
Home base, anchor, pillar of reduction,
ə.

Often forgotten yet frequently uttered,
we sing you from beneath our breath, praise you with every mutter,
you mysterious rock of a letter,
ə.

Whistling wind chime we’ve had forever,
soft rain falling on glass, drops shattered.
White noise cradling us gently,
schwa, we hear you and did so
long before we knew you.

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