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What exactly is the "schwa" sound? As a non-native speaker, I hear this sound as not being a pure and clean sound. I mean I know that every vowel sound may vary depending on whether the syllable is stressed, on the accent of the person that makes the sound, etc. But generally this sound is the same in the sense that it does not depend on the consonant sounds that come before or after, and might or might not be heard as being different by the non-native speaker ear.

The schwa sound is a very difficult one for me because I cannot find a pattern to follow. When I was learning the other vowel sounds I could analyze a long list of words being pronounced (by the same person of course) and then abstract the sound so I can produce it perfectly. But this does not work for the schwa sound. So for example I hear one sound in words like a-bout, b-a-loon, decim-a-l, and a different sound in words like s-u-ppose and impet-u-s, t-o-day or t-o-night. Also in words like Ros-a-'s and ros-e-s, the schwa sounds differently.

When it comes to words that have the schwa sound on vowels e an i like in the word insan-i-ty then the sound is almost the one for the i in t-i-p, but also in words like b-e-hind I hear some people say it with a schwa sound like in a-bout and some other people pronounce it like the i in p-i-t. So, I would really appreciate an explanation about how you perceive this sound and how you would explain it to someone who, like me, is not a native speaker.

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My guess is that you haven't run across the site for English Language Learners yet, or you would have asked this question there. – J.R. Mar 4 '13 at 3:14
All (completely) unstressed vowels in English lose all character and become barely-heard schwas in the overall sentence. It does not matter how they’re spelled or what they’re near. – tchrist Mar 4 '13 at 3:15
@Daniela Diaz: You don't say what language(s) you speak, so we can't say whether there is a [ə] or a /ə/ in your language. If your language happens to be Spanish, then there is neither, and pronouncing it is certainly a problem in English. – John Lawler Mar 4 '13 at 3:35
@JohnLawler Sorry. Yes my language is Spanish. – Daniela Diaz Mar 4 '13 at 3:44
@J.R. Your link takes me to this same place, but I googled English Language Learners in stack exchange and then I can see the site, thanks for that and sorry I will make my questions there next time. – Daniela Diaz Mar 4 '13 at 3:49

First, it's "shwa". It's a Hebrew word, not a German one, so there's no reason for SCH.

Second, it's both a phone [ə] in IPA, and a phoneme /ə/ in English. As a phone, it's got the sound of the final vowel in German Danke, of the first vowel in French Le Mans, or the first vowel in English the man. There is no shwa in Spanish or Italian.

Third, as a phoneme in English, /ə/ doesn't contrast with any other central vowel, so it has a lot of allophones: /ə/ [ɨ] [ə] [ʌ] (in increasing order of stress and decreasing order of speed), plus syllabic resonants [ṃ] [ṇ] [ḷ] [ṛ], before those consonants.

The best way I can suggest to practice the sound [ə] is to open your mouth to say an [e] (whatever that you think that is in your language), and then — while saying it, and without changing how your mouth or lips are positioned — move your tongue backwards toward the center of your mouth.

What you wind up saying is likely to be something close to a shwa.

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Uuuuhhhh ... +1 – Robusto Mar 4 '13 at 3:58
@asmeurer: No, the is pronounced "thuh" /ðə/ before consonants and "thee" /ði/ before vowels. /m/ is a consonant, so it's /ðə'mæn/. – John Lawler Mar 4 '13 at 4:57
@asmeurer You’ve “never heard that rule”? Really? It’s the same one that’s operative in choossing a for a banana versus an for an apple. John is completely correct; this is ultra-basic English. One says /ði/ apple but /ðə/ banana. – tchrist Mar 4 '13 at 5:57
Several dictionaries I looked at give the spelling as schwa and the etymology as German. See Etymonline for example: 1895, from German Schwa, ultimately from Hebrew shewa "a neutral vowel quality," literally "emptiness." – Robusto Mar 4 '13 at 11:59
Yeah, it's hopeless. But American dictionary makers think Americans are too stupid to learn IPA. And I have to admit it seems they're correct. – John Lawler Mar 6 '13 at 14:35

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 17 '13 at 12:43

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