Pronunciation – the short vowel /ə/

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The most common sound in all varieties of the English language is /ə/ – it is so important that it even has its own name – schwa. It corresponds to most syllables which do not carry the word stress. And it can actually substitute, obviously depending on the word, any of the five vowels (and also y): (a) aboutago and legal;(e) waterteacher and happen;(i) raisinpencil and pupil; (o) doctorlemon and bottom; (u) naturesupply and circus; (y) martyr. It is one of the two vowel sounds used in English for unstressed syllables, the other one being /ɪ/.

1. /ə/ at the first syllable of a word

Sounds

  • /ə/

beginning with “a”: about, account, admire, again, alone, along, among, appeal, appear, arise, around, awaybeginning with “o”: occur, official, oppose, original

  • /bə/: balloon, banana, Bolivia
  • /də/: domestic
  • /dʒə/: Japan
  • /fə/: familiar
  • /gə/: gorilla
  • /hə/: habitual, horizon
  • /kə/: capacity, community, computer, concern, consider, continue, control, Kentucky
  • /lə/: lagoon
  • /mə/: machine, material, Morocco
  • /nə/: Nebraska
  • /pə/: patrol, police, position
  • /sə/: suggest, supply, support
  • /tə/: today, together
  • /və/: variety
  • others: protect, provide

Spelling

  • with “a”: about, baloon, familiar
  • with “e”: Unstressed “e” in the first syllable is normally pronounced /ɪ/, as in “begin” or “reply”.
  • with “i”: Unstressed “i” in the first syllable is normally pronounced /ɪ/, as in “division” or “significant”.
  • with “o”: domestic, gorilla, occur
  • with “u”: suggest, supply, support

Homophones

  • gorilla, guerrilla
  • homophones in some dialects or in relaxed pronunciation: accept /ˌækˈsept, əkˈsept/, except /ɪkˈsept, əkˈsept/

2. /ə/ in the middle of a word

  • with “a”: Canada, company, organise, relative
  • with “ai”: certainly
  • with “e”: agency, camera, concentrate, enemy
  • with “i”: family, Philippines, policy
  • with “ia”: initiative
  • with “ie”: efficiency
  • with “io”: additional, educational, national, traditional
  • with “o”: Christopher, customer, ignorant, introduce
  • with “u”: circumstance, measurement, Portugal
  • with “y”: analysis, Pennsylvania

3. /ə/ at the last syllable of a word

  • with “a”: comma, local, salad
  • with “ai”: certain, curtain, mountain
  • with “e”: label, letter, problem
  • with “eo”: dungeon, luncheon, surgeon
  • with “i”: civil, council, pupil
  • with “ia”: controversial, essential, musician
  • with “ie”: ancient, patient, soldier
  • with “io”: condition, decision, question
  • with “iou”: anxious, cautious, religious
  • with “iu”: Belgium
  • with “o”: common, major, reason
  • with “ou”: colour,BrE famous, various
  • with “u”: album, minimum, useful
  • with “y”: beryl, martyr, vinyl
  • unwritten /ə/: couldn’t, mechanism, rhythm
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Examples of the ə sound

Here are some words that start with the ə sound:

  • us /əs/
  • again /ə’gen/
  • American /ə’merəkən/
  • another/ə’nʌðə/

Here are some words that have the ə sound in the middle:

  • even /’iːvən/
  • woman /’wʊmən/
  • family /’fæməli/
  • student /’stjuːdənt/

Lots of words end with this sound. Here are just a few.

  • never /’nevə
/
  • after /’ɑːftə/
  • under /ˈʌndə/
  • Mr /’mɪstə/