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Schwa /ə/ is a phonetically variable sound. It may be [ɪ̈]-ish (or reportedly even [ɨ]-ish), depending on position and dialect, while oftentimes it is [ə] (or [ɘ] in New Zealand English), and for at least some dialects it can be [ɐ]-ish (or even [ä]-ish; not a native speaker) word-finally and before plural and possessive /s/ ('-er' too in some non-rhotic dialects). Before [ɫ], it may be (near-)back, precisely [ɤ]-ish or [ʌ]-ish, which is evidenced by misspellings in which 'e' (representative of /ə/), 'u' (for some speakers; representative of /ʌ/), and 'a' (representative of /ɔ(ː)/) are confused before [ɫ]. It can be voiceless in some words too. I wonder if anyone noted that variation, and if so, if it has been properly studied.

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    Yes. Schwa is the only central vowel phoneme in English. In American dialects, it's lowered to [ʌ] when stressed, and its allophones vary all over the central vowel space when not stressed. That's because there are no other central vowel phonemes that it contrasts with, so individual variation is normal and unremarkable. Front and back vowels contrast strongly in English (2 high front, 2 mid front, 1 low front, 1 low back, two mid back, two high back), but there's only the one central vowel. – John Lawler Aug 12 '20 at 21:14
  • You can search for schwa on this site. english.stackexchange.com/questions/405876/… is one that comes up. – Xanne Aug 12 '20 at 21:19
  • @JohnLawler I thought that schwa was never stressed. Can you give an example of when a stressed schwa is used? – The Photon Aug 13 '20 at 0:44
  • @ThePhoton, For me, there's kind of stressed schwa in 'worry', so stressed schwa exists. Have a look at John Well's blog for more details. – Decapitated Soul Aug 13 '20 at 12:19
  • The phoneme /ə/ in American English (don't know about English Englishes) can be stressed or unstressed, like any vowel phoneme. If it's stressed, it's lowered to [ʌ], or thereabouts. Some textbooks posit an extra phoneme /ʌ/ that's always stressed, but there's no contrast with a schwa phoneme that's never stressed. So there's only one central vowel phoneme, unless you want to count /ɚ/ separately from /r/. – John Lawler Aug 13 '20 at 13:48
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In a comment John Lawler wrote:

Yes. Schwa is the only central vowel phoneme in English. In American dialects, it's lowered to [ʌ] when stressed, and its allophones vary all over the central vowel space when not stressed. That's because there are no other central vowel phonemes that it contrasts with, so individual variation is normal and unremarkable. Front and back vowels contrast strongly in English (2 high front, 2 mid front, 1 low front, 1 low back, two mid back, two high back), but there's only the one central vowel.

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  • In Standard American English, that is. In Australian English, you get /ʉ/. And in regional varieties of AmE and BrE, you can undoubtedly find other central vowels. – Peter Shor Aug 13 '20 at 13:24

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