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The IPA symbol for the Schwa

In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (sometimes spelled shwa)[1][2] can mean the following:

  • An unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel. Such vowels are often transcribed with the symbol <ə>, regardless of their actual phonetic value.
  • The mid-central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded) in the middle of the vowel chart, stressed or unstressed. In IPA phonetic transcription, it is written as [ə]. In this case the term mid-central vowel may be used instead of schwa to avoid ambiguity.


The term

The word schwa is from the Hebrew word shva (שְׁוָא shewa’, /ʃəˈwa/, modern pronunciation: shva /ʃva/), which designates the Hebrew niqqud vowel sign shva "ְ" that in modern Hebrew indicates either the phoneme /e/ or the complete absence of a vowel. Also the Hebrew shva is sometimes represented by the upside-down e symbol for Schwa, a misleading transliteration, since the Schwa vowel is not representative of modern Hebrew pronunciation of shva and is not characteristic of earlier pronunciations either (see Tiberian vocalization → Mobile Shwa = Shwa na'). The spelling "schwa" is German in origin.

Schwa as a vowel

Sometimes the term "schwa" is used for any epenthetic vowel, even though different languages use different epenthetic vowels (e.g., the Navajo epenthetic vowel is [i]).

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables, especially if syllabic consonants are not used:

  • like the 'a' in about [əˈbaʊt]
  • like the 'e' in taken [ˈteɪkən]
  • like the 'i' in pencil [ˈpɛnsəl]
  • like the 'o' in eloquent [ˈɛləkwənt]
  • like the 'u' in supply [səˈplaɪ]
  • like the 'y' in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]

Schwa is a very short neutral vowel sound, and like all vowels, its precise quality varies depending on the adjacent consonants. In most varieties of English, schwa mostly occurs in unstressed syllables (exceptions include BrE concerted), but in New Zealand English and South African English the high front lax vowel (as in the word bit) has shifted open and back to sound like schwa, and these dialects include both stressed and unstressed schwas. In General American, schwa is one of the two vowel sounds that can be rhotacized. This sound is used in words with unstressed "er" syllables, such as dinner.

Quite a few languages have a sound similar to schwa. It is similar to a short French unaccented e, which in that language is rounded and less central, more like an open-mid or close-mid front rounded vowel. It is almost always unstressed, though Albanian, Bulgarian, and Afrikaans are three languages that allow stressed schwas. In most dialects of Russian an unstressed a or o reduces to a schwa. In dialects of Kashubian a schwa occurs. Many Caucasian languages and some Uralic languages (e.g. Komi) also use phonemic schwa, and allow schwas to be stressed. In Dutch, the vowel of the suffix -lijk, as in waarschijnlijk (probably) is pronounced as a schwa. In the Eastern dialects of Catalan, including the standard language variety, based in the dialect spoken in and around Barcelona, an unstressed "a" or "e" is pronounced as a schwa (called "vocal neutra", "neutral vowel"). In the dialects of Catalan spoken in the Balearic Islands, a stressed schwa can occur. Stressed schwa can occur in Romanian as in mătură [ˈməturə] ('broom'). In European and some African dialects of Portuguese, the schwa occurs in many words that end in "e", such as noite (night), tarde (afternoon), and que (that). However, that is rare in Brazilian Portuguese except in such areas as Curitiba in the state of Paraná. The inherent vowel in the Devanagari script, an abugida used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit is a schwa, written अ in isolation or to begin a word.

Other characters used to represent this sound include ը in Armenian, ă in Romanian, and ë in Albanian and Turoyo. In Bulgarian Cyrillic, the letter ъ is used, and in Korean, the letterㅓis used.

Schwa in Indonesian and Malay

In Indonesian, schwa can be stressed or not. Most of the times, the letter <e> is read as a schwa.
There is also a phenomenon of pronouncing the a in the final syllable (usually second syllable, since most Indonesian root words consist of two syllables) as a stressed schwa.


  • datang (=come), pronounced [daˈtəŋ], and often written as dateng in informal writing.
  • kental (=viscous), pronounced [kənˈtəl].
  • hitam (=black), pronounced [iˈtəm], written as item in informal language.
  • dalam (=deep, in), pronounced [daˈləm], often written as dalem.
  • malam (=night), pronounced [maˈləm], written as malem in informal language.

Indonesian orthography formerly used unmarked <e> only for the schwa sound, while the full vowel /e/ was written <é>. Malay orthography, on the other hand, formerly indicated the schwa with <ĕ> (called pĕpĕt), while unmarked <e> stood for /e/.

In the 1972 spelling reform that unified Indonesian and Malaysian spelling conventions (Ejaan yang Disempurnakan, regulated by MABBIM), it was agreed to use neither diacritic.[3] Hence there is no orthographic distinction any longer between /ə/ and /e/; both are spelled with unmarked <e>. This means the pronunciation of any given letter e in Indonesian and Malay is not immediately obvious to the learner, and must be learned separately. For example, the word for 'wheeled vehicle', formerly spelled keréta in Indonesia and kĕreta in Malaysia, is now spelled kereta in both countries.

In southern Malaysian pronunciation, which is considered the standard, the final letter -a represents schwa, while final -ah stands for /a/. The dialect of Kedah in northern Malaysia, however, pronounces final -a as /a/ also. In loanwords, a nonfinal short /a/ may become schwa in Malay. For example, Mekah (<Arabic Makkah, Malay pronunciation [ˈməka]).

Schwa in Azeri

When the new Latin script was introduced for the Azerbaijani language on December 25, 1991, A-umlaut was selected to represent the sound /æ/. However, on May 16, 1992, it was replaced by the schwa. Although use of Ä ä (also used in Tatar, Turkmen, and Gagauz) seems to be a simpler alternative as the schwa is absent in most character sets, particularly Turkish encoding, it was reintroduced; the schwa had existed continuously from 1929 to 1991 to represent Azeri's most-common vowel, in both post-Arabic alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic) of Azerbaijan.

Schwa indogermanicum

The term "schwa" is also used for vowels of uncertain quality (rather than neutral sound) in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language. It was observed that, while for the most part a in Latin and Ancient Greek corresponds to a in Sanskrit, there are instances where Sanskrit has i while Latin and Greek have a, such as pitar (Sanskrit) vs pater (Latin and Ancient Greek). This postulated "schwa indogermanicum" evolved into the theory of the so-called laryngeals. Most scholars of Proto-Indo-European would now postulate three different phonemes rather than a single indistinct schwa. Some scholars postulate yet more, to explain further problems in the Proto-Indo-European vowel system. Most reconstructions of *-ə- in older literature would correspond to *-h2- in contemporary notation.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, under "schwa".
  2. ^ Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 0-226-06067-5, ISBN 90-272-1892-7
  3. ^ Asmah Haji Omar, ""The Malay Spelling Reform"". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (2): 9-13. 1989. 


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also schwa



Schwa n. (genitive Schwas, plural Schwas)

  1. schwa

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