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According to this description of the English phonotactics, the schwa /ə/ doesn't occur in stressed syllables. But Cambridge Dictionary Onlines, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary and Longman Pronunciation Dictionary say otherwise: the word "because" has been variously transcribed as /bɪˈkəz/ or /bəˈkəz/. So in which source should I believe? Or is there any error in transcription going on here? Or is "because" the only exception? And are there others?

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    A very similar question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/26928/… See especially the comments on the answer from user98893, but the question, all the answers and the comments may be informative for you. – JEL Jan 9 '16 at 2:59
  • butter, putter, cutter, mutter, slummer, summer, hugger, rugger, smother, glummer, mugger, humbug, ... – The Photon Jan 9 '16 at 4:54
  • Making poor diction normative. sigh – Spencer Aug 4 '17 at 22:41
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I think the source of your confusion is that different people use different sets of symbols to represent the same pronunciations in English. Phonemic notation for English is fairly standardized, but it isn't absolutely uniform: for example, another area of variance is the notation of syllabic resonants (do we write the last syllables of button chasm bottle butter as /n̩ m̩ l̩ r̩/ or /ən əm əl ər/, or perhaps even /ᵊn ᵊm ᵊl ᵊr/?) and the notation of the "r" consonant sound (do we go with the simpler /r/ or the possibly more phonetically accurate /ɹ/?). In general, the difference between these is completely meaningless. Check the pronunciation guide of whatever resource you are using to learn what phonemic value some particular symbol represents.

When the schwa symbol <ə> is used in a stressed syllable, it almost certainly represents the STRUT vowel, even though this is standardly represented by /ʌ/. The "stressed schwa" notation for this vowel is probably most common in ad-hoc dictionary phonemic notation systems (I'd guess because it is more familiar to the general public than <ʌ>). Usually, notation systems that represent STRUT with <ə> will also represent NURSE with <ər>, <əɹ>, or <ɚ> (instead of <ɜr>, <ɜɹ>, or <ɝ>). It might not be entirely phonetically accurate, but neither is [ʌ] for many speakers (who may have a phonetic value more like [ɐ] or even [ə] instead).

This notation is possible without much, if any, ambiguity because schwa and STRUT are minimally contrastive at best, and actually in complementary distribution for many speakers. (See Accents of English by John C. Wells (who is also the author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) for a description of this.)

The use of this notation in the Merriam-Webster dictionary was discussed at the following usingenglish.com forum thread: ə(unstressed) vs ʌ(stressed). The dictionaries you list evidently follow the same practice.

However, an earlier part of the Wikipedia article you referred to ("Vowels") defines the STRUT vowel as /ʌ/.

So the two sources simply use different definitions. The statement in the Wikipedia article is true, given the notation used there: it isn't true for all possible, or even for all existing phonetic notation systems used to transcribe English.

Note: I may be biased towards identifying /ə/ with /ʌ/ here because I do speak a dialect where "because" and "was" rhyme with "buzz," and "what" rhymes with "cut."


Peter Shor's explanation that it represents an unstressed weak form is also possible. It seems particularly likely for the Cambridge online dictionary; the evidence for it is that STRUT is usually represented by the symbol <ʌ> (I can't find any (other) word where /ə/ represents STRUT) , and for "but," they distinguish "strong /bʌt/ weak /bət/." The transcription in general doesn't always seem to be consistent; in the UK dictionary, "muzzle" is transcribed as /ˈmʌz.l̩/ but "guzzle" is transcribed as /ˈɡʌz.əl/.

  • I think there's good evidence for it being a weak form in OALD as well. Compare the OALD's entries for because and but. – Peter Shor Jan 9 '16 at 12:09
  • Geez, talk about huge confusion caused by an Advanced Learner's Dictionary (which is designed to be simple enough for foreign learners). I'm not even done with the "redundant" phonemes /i/ and /u/ and now the "stressed" schwa. I guess I just have to follow my ears instead of those notations in those dictionaries. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Jan 9 '16 at 12:38
  • I agree with all this. For many, including me, the alternation between schwa and the STRUT vowel is automatic. If we stress a syllable which is ordinarily unstressed and pronounced with schwa, the vowel turns into a caret instead. When people hear schwas, their phonemic perception is that they are hearing the STRUT vowel (a.k.a. wedge or caret). – Greg Lee Jan 9 '16 at 17:31
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In the pronunciation /bəˈkəz/, neither of the syllables is truly stressed.

There are several function words in English which have weak forms and strong forms, depending on whether the word is stressed in the sentence. For example, the words but, just, could, should are pronounced with /ʌ/, /ʊ/ when they are stressed, and /ə/ when they are unstressed, which is usually the case.

I believe that the pronunciation /bəˈkəz/ is a weak form. We can have a schwa in both syllables of /bəˈkəz/ because in the weak form, neither vowel receives much stress.

In fact, I have the weak form /bɪkəz/ for because, which I use when neither syllable receives stress. For example, if I was saying "because John is ..." in informal speech, I would probably use /bɪkəz/. On the other hand, if I was saying "because of the ...", I would definitely use /bɪˈkɔz/, simply /bɪkəz/ English doesn't like long strings of unstressed syllables. For me, the /ə/ and /ʌ/ are vowels with different qualities, and I don't believe I ever say /bɪˈkʌz/, with or without stess on the /ʌ/.

Why do the dictionaries put a stress mark on the second syllable in this pronunciation? You'll have to ask them, but I assume they have a rule that two-syllable words need stress marks. Why don't they mark it as a weak form, the way they do for but? You'll have to ask them that, too.

Other exceptions would have to be two-syllable function words with weak forms. I can't think of any off-hand, but there probably are some.

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    Whether /ˈʍεðər/ also has a weak form for me, contrasting strong [ˈwɛðɚ] with weak [wəðə ~ wəðɚ]. And of course going to has a whole range of increasingly reduced weak forms: gonna [ˈɡɒnə] > gunna [ɡənə] > ’unna [ənə] > ’na [nə] > ’a [ə]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 8 at 10:47
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: And in fact, the Cambridge dictionary online has /ˈɡənə/ for the U.K. pronunciation of gonna (but not for the American one, for some reason), again putting an unjustified stress mark on a syllable with a schwa. – Peter Shor Feb 9 at 20:18
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In my opinion, and I think also in the opinion of many other American linguists, there is no stressed sound [ə] in standard American English. This sound occurs only as a result of the phonological process of vowel reduction in certain unstressed syllables: non-high lax unstressed vowels become schwa.

There is no phoneme schwa in English, so the notation /ə/, taking the slashes to signify phonemic forms, is not interpretable for English. It doesn't make sense.

However, even among American linguists, there is probably considerable disagreement with what I have just said, and there seem to be some very different ideas about schwa, notation, and phonemics in general in the uk, so I'm afraid you can't count on what I have said to be helpful as a guide to understand what people say or write about schwa. Sorry.

  • Whether or not there is a phoneme /ə/, there is a pronunciation [bəkəz], which is quite common.. – Peter Shor Jan 9 '16 at 4:34
  • @PeterShor, except in an unusually casual speech style where both syllables are unstressed, there is no such pronunciation as you claim. – Greg Lee Jan 9 '16 at 5:25
  • @Greg: How about just, but, could, should? Do you believe that people use weak forms containing a schwa with these words, even though they just have one syllable? If so, why not in because? Is there a rule that in speech, if you have two syllables in a row, one of them will be stressed? Of course not. So why can't you have two unstressed syllables in a function word? What's the reason behind this? – Peter Shor Jan 9 '16 at 11:29
  • Let me note that I have a weak form for because. If I stress it, I use the pronounciation /bɪˈkɔz/. When it's unstressed, the vowel in the last syllable is quire different. I think I reduce it to a schwa: /bɪˈkəz/. But if your definition of schwa says it can never appear in the slightly more stressed syllable of a two-syllable word, then I guess it can't be a schwa and it has to be some other vowel. – Peter Shor Jan 9 '16 at 11:41
  • @PeterShor, my definition of schwa is that it is the vowel said with no raising, no lowering, no fronting , and no backing of the tongue, possibly with other secondary articulations like rounding. Whether it occurs in stressed syllables is a matter of fact, not definition. It is ordinary for single syllable function words to lose stress in casual speech. English avoids having long sequences of unstressed syllables, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. – Greg Lee Jan 9 '16 at 17:20

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