Encyclopedia > Schwa

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In linguistics and phonology, the schwa is the vowel sound in many lightly pronounced unaccented syllables in English words of more than one syllable. It is sometimes signified by the pronunciation "uh" or symbolized by the symbol ə (an upside-down rotated e).

It is a characteristic of English (and the English accent in other languages) that unaccented vowel sounds, especially before 'r' or 'l', tend to become a schwa. A schwa sound can therefore be represented in English by any vowel. In most dialects, for example, the schwa sound is found in the following words:

  • The a in about is a schwa
  • The e in synthesis is a schwa
  • In American English, the i in decimal is a schwa (not in British English)
  • The o in harmony is a schwa
  • The u in medium is a schwa
  • The y in syringe is a schwa

Authorities vary somewhat in the range of what is considered a schwa sound, but the above examples are generally accepted.

For non-English speakers, it may be useful to know that the sound is very similar to a short French unaccented e, or a German ö (an o with umlaut). It is a central, half-open vowel, exactly in the middle of the International phonetic alphabet vowel chart.

Some browser fonts will show the schwa symbol here: ə. Others may show either a box, a question mark, or capital Y.

The word "schwa" (shəva) originally referred to one of the vowel points used with the Hebrew alphabet, which looks like a vertical pair of dots under a letter.

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