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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’, pronounced [ʃəˈwa], modern 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). 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, Slovene and Afrikaans are some of the 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.[clarification needed] 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 Dutch adjective words carry a schwa at their ending 'rood' becomes 'rode'. Anytime an 'e' falls at the end of Dutch words it becomes a schwa. Compare 'de' and 'het'. 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 unstressed syllables that end in "e", such as noite (night), tarde (afternoon, late), pêssego (peach), and pecado (sin). 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. 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 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 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 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 . 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 (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 syncope in Hindi

Although the Devanagari script is used as a standard to write modern Hindi, the schwa ('ə', sometimes written as 'a') implicit in each consonant of the script is "obligatorily deleted" at the end of words and in certain other contexts.[4] This phenomenon has been termed the "schwa syncope rule" or the "schwa deletion rule" of Hindi.[4][5] One formalization of this rule has been summarized as ə -> ø | VC_CV. In other words, when a vowel-preceded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, the schwa inherent in the first consonant is deleted.[5][6] However, this formalization is inexact and incomplete (i.e. sometimes deletes a schwa when it shouldn't or, at other times, fails to delete it when it should), and can yield errors. Schwa deletion is computationally important because it is essential to building text-to-speech software for Hindi.[6][7]

As a result of schwa syncope, the correct Hindi pronunciation of many words differs from that expected from a literal rendering of Devanagari. For instance, राम is Rām (incorrect: Rāma), रचना is Rachnā (incorrect: Rachanā), वेद is Véd (incorrect: Véda) and नमकीन is Namkeen (incorrect: Namakeen).[6][7]

Correct schwa deletion is also critical because, in some cases, the same Devanagari letter-sequence is pronounced two different ways in Hindi depending on context, and failure to delete the appropriate schwas can change the sense of the word.[8] For instance, the sequence धड़कने in दिल धड़कने लगा (the heart started beating) and in दिल की धड़कनें (beats of the heart) is identical prior to the nasalization in the second usage. Yet, it is pronounced in the first and dhad.kane in the second.[8] While native speakers correctly pronounce the sequence differently in different contexts, non-native speakers and voice-synthesis software can make them "sound very unnatural", making it "extremely difficult for the listener" to grasp the intended meaning.[8]

Schwa syncope in American English

American English has a tendency towards schwa deletion in medial posttonic syllables.[9] Examples of this are sep(a)rate, choc(o)late, cam(e)ra and elab(o)rate, where the schwa (shown in parentheses) has a tendency to be deleted.[9]

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

Further reading


  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. 
  4. ^ a b Larry M. Hyman, Victoria Fromkin, Charles N. Li (1988 (Volume 1988, Part 2)), Language, speech, and mind, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0415003113,, "... The implicit /a/ is not read when the symbol appears in word-final position or in certain other contexts where it is obligatorily deleted (via the so-called schwa-deletion rule which plays a crucial role in Hindi word phonology ..." 
  5. ^ a b Tej K. Bhatia (1987), A history of the Hindi grammatical tradition: Hindi-Hindustani grammar, grammarians, history and problems, BRILL, ISBN 9004079246,, "... Hindi literature fails as a reliable indicator of the actual pronunciation because it is written in the Devanagari script ... the schwa syncope rule which operates in Hindi ..." 
  6. ^ a b c Monojit Choudhury, Anupam Basu and Sudeshna Sarkar (July 2004), "A Diachronic Approach for Schwa Deletion in Indo Aryan Languages", Proceedings of the Workshop of the ACL Special Interest Group on Computational Phonology (SIGPHON) (Association for Computations Linguistics),, "... schwa deletion is an important issue for grapheme-to-phoneme conversion of IAL, which in turn is required for a good Text-to-Speech synthesizer ..." 
  7. ^ a b Naim R. Tyson, Ila Nagar (2009 (12:15–25)), "Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in hindi text-to-speech synthesis", International Journal of Speech Technology,, "... Without the appropriate deletion of schwas, any speech output would sound unnatural. Since the orthographical representation of Devanagari gives little indication of deletion sites, modern TTS systems for Hindi implemented schwa deletion rules based on the segmental context where schwa appears ..." 
  8. ^ a b c Monojit Choudhury and Anupam Basu (July 2004), "A Rule Based Schwa Deletion Algorithm for Hindi", Proceedings of the International Conference On Knowledge-Based Computer Systems,, "... Without any schwa deletion, not only the two words will sound very unnatural, but it will also be extremely difficult for the listener to distinguish between the two, the only difference being nasalization of the e at the end of the former. However, a native speaker would pronounce the former as dha.D-kan-eM and the later as dha.Dak-ne, which are clearly distinguishable ..." 
  9. ^ a b Michael J. Kenstowicz, Phonology in generative grammar, Wiley-Blackwell, 1994, ISBN 9781557864260,, "... American English schwa deletes in medial posttonic syllables ..." 


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also Schwa



Wikipedia has an article on:



German Schwa, from Hebrew שְׁוָא (š’vā), meaning "nought".





schwa (plural schwas)

  1. An indeterminate central vowel sound as the "a" in "about", represented as /ə/ in IPA and /@/ in SAMPA and X-SAMPA.
  2. The character ə, an upside-down lower-case E



  • Anagrams of achsw
  • chaws

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