What is the Schwa Sound? How Does it Impact My Accent?
The “schwa” sound, written phonetically by speech-language pathologists and linguists as /ə/, is one of the two most frequently used vowel sounds in American English. Depending on your first language background and your familiarity with the English language, the use of the “schwa” sound English may be difficult to pronounce. To help you understand how your language background may influence your English pronunciation, check out the sounds that are used in your language(s) first. To hear what the schwa sounds like and how to produce the sound, check out our Sounds American video.
If you are trying to improve your American English pronunciation, this sound is very valuable, because roughly one in five English words has the schwa! Keep reading to learn more about this vital sound and how it can impact your American English accent.
How do I produce the schwa sound?
Most importantly, when producing the schwa sound, you should be relaxing your tongue and lips. Open your mouth slightly, and leave your lips in a relaxed, neutral position. Your tongue should be in the middle of your mouth and relaxed. The keyword here is RELAX! Your articulators (tongue, lips, etc.) should not be tense. Check out this visual for help:
Refer to the words below to use as practice to produce the schwa sound. You can read them aloud to yourself, or follow along with our Sounds American video.
How do I know when to produce a schwa sound?
Because the schwa sound can be used in multiple different spellings, it may be difficult to tell when you should use it. The schwa sound is most commonly written as “a”, like in the word “above”. The next most common spellings are “o” as in “today”, and “e”, as in the second “e” in “even”. It is not as common to see the schwa sound pronounced in words containing “io”, as in the word “nation”. Additionally, schwa can rarely be produced in words containing “i”, as in “pencil”, or in words containing “u”, as in the word “product”.
After learning that schwa may be produced when you see the vowels “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, “io”, and “u”, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. After all, “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, and “u”, are all of the vowels in English (excluding diphthongs). However, if you can learn the patterns and become familiar with words that use the schwa sound, your American English production will greatly improve!
Which common words used in Portland, OR use the schwa sound?
The first and most obvious example of the use of /ə/ is the word Oregon! As you may have read in our previous post, Strangely Pronounced Words in Portland, OR, this word is pronounced “OR-uh-gun”, not “or-uh-GONE”. We Oregonians like to maximize our schwa usage. Why use one schwa when you could use two?!
Portlanders also maximize our /ə/ use with the pronunciation of the word “will-AM-it”, a major river in the area. Willamette is not usually pronounced “will-am-et”, so make sure you’ve practiced your schwa sound before attempting this one.
This word is commonly used when describing something that true Portlanders never use: umbrellas! We’re so used to the rain here that using an umbrella would be admitting weakness. We’ll just put up our hoods instead. To start and finish this word, make sure you’ve practiced your schwa sound first! It’s pronounced “um-BREH-luh”.
With 11 unique donut shops throughout Portland, knowing how to pronounce the word “donut” is an essential Portland, OR term. This word is pronounced “DOH-nut”, not “doh-NOT”. We are donut connoisseurs here, and we doh-NOT pronounce this word incorrectly here!
With the practice and information provided in this post, we hope that you will be able to improve your American English accent! Watch the full Sounds American video here to learn more, and check out our other videos pertaining to American English pronunciation.
If you missed us last time, check out our last post, Strangely Pronounced Words in Portland, OR!
Questions or Comments? Contact us here.