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I'm learning about schwa sound used in English. I've learnt that the phenomenon called vowel reduction can, in English, generate the schwa sound.

Are all schwa sounds a result of this process, or not?
Can we regard a schwa as a sub-thing to many strong vowels?

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    No, some schwas are phonemic in English. The stressed [ʌ] in butt and stump is a phonemic schwa. There is no contrast among central vowels, so all of [ʌ], [ə], [ɜ], and [ɨ], among many others, occur as allophones of the phoneme /ə/. Those schwas may be spelled with any vowel, just like reduced schwas; however, they're much less frequent, since any unstressed syllable is reduced, but phonemic schwas don't occur more frequently in lexical items than any other phonemic vowel. That means that most schwas in polysyllabic words are reduced, but this isn't true in short words. – John Lawler Sep 29 '16 at 14:27
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    @JohnLawler: butt and stump are not schwas! Not for most speakers, anyway. – TonyK Sep 29 '16 at 18:39
  • Not phonetically, but phonemically. Stressed /ə/ has an [ʌ] allophone; they're never in contrast and they're phonetically similar; that's the definition of two allophones of the same phoneme. As I said, there's no contrast with English central vowels, so /ə/ assimilates to any environment, just like /h/ does. – John Lawler Sep 29 '16 at 18:54
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    @John Lawler: to me that seems like a very parochial view. While some Americans use the same sound for /ə/ and /ʌ/, I don't. They are two distinct sounds. And I even have a minimal pair in but (which I almost never pronounce with /ʌ/) and butt. – Peter Shor Sep 30 '16 at 0:48
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    @JohnLawler Well, that really depends on how you define what a schwa is. If you define it as the sound represented by IPA [ə], you'll get one answer; if you define it as the phoneme underlying most central vowel phones, you'll get a different answer; and if you define it as the phonetically centralised vowels that result from vowel reduction, you'll get a third answer. Unfortunately schwa has all of these meanings, so it's not really possible to answer the question as such. Most dialects do have some contrast in central vowels, though: but vs. butt, roses vs. Rosa’s, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 30 '16 at 15:29
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In comments, John Lawler answered:

No, some schwas are phonemic in English. The stressed [ʌ] in butt and stump is a phonemic schwa. There is no contrast among central vowels, so all of [ʌ], [ə], [ɜ], and [ɨ], among many others, occur as allophones of the phoneme /ə/. Those schwas may be spelled with any vowel, just like reduced schwas; however, they're much less frequent, since any unstressed syllable is reduced, but phonemic schwas don't occur more frequently in lexical items than any other phonemic vowel. That means that most schwas in polysyllabic words are reduced, but this isn't true in short words.

[Not phonetically, but phonemically.] Stressed /ə/ has an [ʌ] allophone; they're never in contrast and they're phonetically similar; that's the definition of two allophones of the same phoneme. As I said, there's no contrast with English central vowels, so /ə/ assimilates to any environment, just like /h/ does.

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  • As an aside, an example of stressed schw in BrE, from BBC Radio 4: "Donald Trump won /bɪˈkəz/ of his outrageousness, not despite it." In this case [I believe], the original vowel in the second syllable was reduced to schwa when 'because' was unstressed, but the schwa was later 'retained' when it's stressed. – David Garner Nov 23 '16 at 15:27
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    @DavidGarner When it is stressed it no longer reduces, so we write the [ə] as [ʌ]. I do understand that it is normally an [ɒ] or [ɔ] vowel there in many speakers, so that that [ʌ] is already at some variance from their normal vowel without fully reducing to the [ə]. – tchrist Nov 23 '16 at 17:35
  • I have to disagree. What I hear is a pure schwa, stressed [like the Welsh pronounce the first vowel of their country's name, Cymru]. I also hear it in 'gonna', .e.g. in "Whatever anyone says, he's gonna do it". – David Garner Nov 23 '16 at 20:00
  • @DavidGarner I take your point and do not disagree, but the convention is that [ə] and [ʌ] are "essentially" the same sound, written as the former when unstressed and the latter when stressed. – tchrist Nov 23 '16 at 20:22
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    @DavidGarner Lawler has a phonemic system where he just uses /ə/ for everything. I think this probably makes more sense because there exists no minimal pair phonemically contrasting /ə/ as /ʌ/ in English, just a pair of [ə] as [ʌ] allophones that occur in various phonologic contexts, such as stress. Yes, you can swap those but then you’ve changed the stress, and it is arguably therefore phonemic stress that creates those would-be minimal pairs, not the vowel proper. – tchrist Nov 23 '16 at 20:26

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