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, neutral vowel sound written as an upside-down and backwards e, ə, in the International Phonetic Alphabet (the universal chart of symbols, representing all the sounds languages make).
Roughly pronounced like “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,” the schwa courses through 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. In some dialects of English, it gets added between syllable, as in real(ə)tor, Kath(ə)leen, ath(ə)lete, gir(ə)l, fil(ə)m, kil(ə)n.
Why is it called schwa?
One of the earliest known instances 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 diacritic—to note an /ə/-like vowel or no vowel at all.
Ode to the schwa
Needless to say, we adore the schwa! So, here we celebrate the most ubiquitous sound in the English language with a word-nerd, Dictionary.com ode.
Symbol of the unstressed syllable,
As our lazy tongues tire,
your sound so reliable.
Simple vocal vibrations,
tongue in resting position.
Home base, anchor, pillar of reduction,
Often forgotten yet frequently uttered,
we sing you from beneath our breath, praise you with every mutter,
you mysterious rock of a letter,
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.