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Is there a word in RP (Received Pronunciation) where the stressed vowel sound is a schwa?

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I wonder if the u in the un- prefix qualifies as a schwa. It feels like the same sound in words like unhappy. –  Robusto May 25 '11 at 11:24
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@Robusto: Received Pronunciation the u in un- is ʌ (Open-mid back unrounded) whereas schwa is ə (Mid-central). –  hippietrail May 25 '11 at 13:40
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How about "uh". Despite what the dictionaries say (ʌ), I think many Americans pronounce it as a schwa. I don't know about RP, though. –  Peter Shor May 25 '11 at 14:21
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@Peter Shor: in BrE, we spell it er (being non-rhotic), and yup, we usually pronounce it as as something fairly close to a schwa. –  PLL May 25 '11 at 18:02
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Just opinion: Since I was an elementary school student and learned the word "schwa", I have always thought it sounds the same as "u" (what @hippie wrote as ^) (un-,up,ugh!) –  TecBrat Aug 22 '12 at 3:15

5 Answers 5

Unlike other answers here, the answer is no. The schwa ə in English IPA transcriptions indicates an unstressed sound.

You can see the Weak and strong forms as an example. Same goes for nouns.

Father is an example, or see this Wikipedia article, where I found this list:

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

EDIT:

Like I said under z7sg's answer, I can't understand why some dictionaries disagree.

In the past I had to train for Uni in order to recognize the different "vowel" sounds in English, I'm talking about BrE, and I found this, the British Council / BBC Phonemic Chart.

If you click on ə, you will hear a short schwa sound, but if you click on ɜ: you will clearly hear the same sound but longer, i.e. the long schwa sound. I find it quite ambiguous to render those different sounds with the same symbol.

The difference can be heard when saying "Teach[er]" and "B[ir]d".

See also this. When I used to do IPA transcriptions in my faculty, the schwa always figured in the unstressed syllables.

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@Tim: I added some info, in case you didn't notice. –  Alenanno May 25 '11 at 13:24
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@Alenanno: IANA linguist, but as I understand, the difference between the vowels of teachER and EARth is almost entirely one of length, and vowel length is generally indicated in IPA by ː, not by a change of symbol. There’s no ambiguity in writing ə for a short schwa and əː for long one, surely? –  PLL May 25 '11 at 13:31
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@Alenanno But the short form of i: (ee in see) is not ɪ but i (y in city). –  z7sg Ѫ May 25 '11 at 16:36
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@Peter the IPA symbols are defined independently of their use in transcribing any particular language. –  nohat May 26 '11 at 4:56
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@nohat: That is essentially what I mean. A phonetic transcription shows what people actually say, from an outside perspective, whereas a phonemic transcription shows only what people think they're saying, or how they conceptualise it, which is only useful from an in-language standpoint. Dictionaries can use phonemic transcription all they want, but we're talking about phonetics at the moment. –  Jon Purdy May 26 '11 at 5:43

To quote wikipedia:

In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (sometimes spelled shwa) 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.

So it seems it has two meanings. One which by definition is unstressed. The other which can be in some languages.

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I was wondering whether the IPA vowel /ə/ can be stressed in English words. –  user4727 May 25 '11 at 10:25

No. Schwa is never stressed in any English word.

The human voice is capable of stressing it of course and schwa is indeed stressed in other languages including Romanian.

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The ə/uh in [səˈplaɪ] supply. that also occurs in some pronunciations of Pencil. pen sul. Is that not a vocal schwa, occurring in English? I know hebrew has vocal schwa, that is like that. –  barlop May 25 '11 at 19:26
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@barlop: That syllable isn't stressed, though. Unless you're talking about the adverb of supple, in which case it's an /ʌ/. –  user4727 May 25 '11 at 19:41
    
good point, it's not stressed in supply.. hmm, I was thinking Burn or Dirt but I see dictionary.cambridge(british pronunciation) /bɜːn/ or /bûrn/ american pronunciation. no upside down e at all so I suppose it's not even a schwa? –  barlop May 25 '11 at 20:22
    
@barlop: Hebrew schwa/sheva is quite different than English schwa. It has both silent and pronounced versions. But I don't know much more as my Hebrew never advanced very far (-: –  hippietrail May 25 '11 at 20:48
    
@hippietrail the silent one hebrew has does nothing probably isn't even a sound, it might just be a mark to symbolise no sound to help prevent a scribe from accidentally putting one in. But the vocal schwa in hebrew has a few pronunications some use one, some use another, a common one is ə the same as schwa in English. It could be that in hebrew it doesn't have stress either or rarely does. –  barlop May 25 '11 at 21:15

The word schwa can mean two things:

In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa (sometimes spelled shwa) 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.

— From the Wikipedia article about schwa

If we go by the first definition, which is a phonological definition, then the answer is no, there are no stressed schwas in Received Pronunciation because schwa refers exclusively to unstressed sounds.

If we go by the second definition, which is a purely phonetic definition, then the answer is a resounding “maybe”. The second definition says “in IPA phonetic transcription” meaning the word schwa could refer to a vowel sound (in any language) that has the vowel quality defined as “mid-central”. Traditional phonetic descriptions of Received Pronunciation give the vowel quality of the NURSE lexical set as [ɜː], which is the IPA for an open-mid central unrounded vowel, a sound very close to but not quite the same as a mid-central vowel. However, a careful narrow transcription of some particular speaker’s production of the NURSE vowel might be given using the symbol [ə], in which case you could make the claim that this is a “stressed schwa”

Nevertheless, this is a pretty contrived scenario. The usual symbol used to transcribe the NURSE vowel is [ɜː] not [ə].

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For me, the first vowel in "children" is pretty damn close to a stressed schwa. Dictionaries tend to list it as a short i, to which I say, maybe in your dialect. But I think it's probably unique.

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Is your dialect RP, as asked about in the question? –  Matt Эллен Nov 12 '13 at 12:56
    
Yep. Faintly US-influenced, as I grew up there, but I spent most of my life in the south of England prior to 2004, and that's what I'm used to hearing. –  Adrian Smith Nov 18 '13 at 6:31

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