In (non-rhotic) British English there seem to be two major allophones of the phoneme /ə/. The first which can be heard in potato, career or the weak form of from as an [ə].

However, there's also a second allophone which it appears doesn't get much attention throughout the scientific literature. In fact, I have only found information about it in Gimson's Pronunciation of English (7th edition):

In final positions, e.g. in 'mother, doctor, over, picture, China', the vowel may be articulated in the open-mid central position (= [ə̞]). The acoustic formants of /ə/ are, therefore, likely to be similar to those for /ɜː/ or /ʌ/ according to the situation.

Note: [ə̞] (= lowered [ə]) is meant to be [ɜ] on the IPA vowel chart.

But what about compound words like motherhood, internet, interstellar and so on? Do these also take the somewhat lowered schwa as if they were single words?

  • Are you sure that "lowered [ə]" isn't meant to be [ʌ] rather than [ɜ]? Take a look at the actual British vowel positions. That's not the right position for the strict IPA vowel [ʌ], but over the last century, in RP, /ʌ/ has moved from being back of /ɜː/ to below it, and nobody has changed the phoneme's symbol. Dec 28, 2014 at 15:41

1 Answer 1


I think you're right about the distinction, whichever IPA symbols are appropriate. In younger London speech, final schwa may be closer to /ɑ/, so 'mother' may be pronounced /ˈmʌðɑ/. But the same speaker would probably say 'potato' as /pəˈtɑɪtɑʊ/ with the traditional schwa in the first syllable.

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