I have noticed that the vowel /ɜː/ (as in the RP pronunciation of "BIRD") sounds the same as the schwa [ə] (as in the pronunciation of "BUTTER" in RP). I assume the BIRD vowel is a bit longer than [ə] and occurs in stressed syllables and has the same quality as [ə]:

  • /ɜː/ = [əː]

And looking the word BIRD up in Lexico added to my doubts, Lexico gives /bəːd/ (Cambridge gives /bɜːd/, BTW).

My question is: Is /ɜː/ realized as [əː] in modern RP?

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    Short answer: yes. At least as much as /ə/ is! Feb 26, 2021 at 13:01
  • There are so many different ways of pronouncing any word or sound in British Englishes that you may be certain somebody, somewhere, pronounces something in any particular way you like. There is no "standard", though not everyone wants to believe that. Feb 26, 2021 at 15:31
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. - Hello. I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean by "as much as /ə/ is!". Would you mind explaining a bit further? ;-)
    – user387044
    Feb 27, 2021 at 7:28
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    There are two phonemes, the NURSE vowel /ɜː/ and the COMMA vowel, /ə/, usually referred to as schwa. Both of these have the same kind of vowel resonance, which is represented in the international IPA system as [ə]. There is some variation as to how these are realised depending on various factors such as individual speaker variation. This is true of both phonemes. Does that make sense? Feb 27, 2021 at 17:03
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. - Thanks! Yes, itt makes a lot of sense now. (I wish you could write an answer but I suppose you don't write answers anymore? I saw your activity and your last answer was posted a long while ago. I really enjoyed reading your answers they're meticulous and comprehensive)
    – user387044
    Feb 28, 2021 at 7:06

2 Answers 2


You might as well consider them to have the same sound quality; many British English speakers use the same vowel sound for them (while others use slightly different vowel sounds).

They are not the same phoneme, and people's pronunciations of phonemes vary, so you can't say there is only one "correct" realization of /ɜː/ in modern RP. But they are generally similar vowel sounds, and lots of speakers do pronounce them with the same vowel.

In his 1982 book Accents of English, John Wells (a very highly respected former professor of phonetics at University College London) says that /ɜː/ is "a relatively long unrounded mid central vocoid, [əː]." See this blog entry for the quote. So some experts consider them to be the same vowel sound.


It is not the same sound. In Lexico, they have adopted a convention to replace the /ɜː/ with /əː/. It doesn't affect the pronunciation of the words containing this sound. If you look at A Key To English Pronunciations on their website, you're going to see it (her):

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In Journal of the International Phonetic Association, Volume 33 Number 2 in December 2003, (http://www.yek.me.uk/ipadicts.html) you can read more about this change:

The third departure from EPD14b is the substitution of /ɜː/ with /əː/. This has the advantage of reducing the total number of unfamiliar symbols to be assimilated by the general user by an undeniably "exotic" item.

If you look up other words with this sound, you will see it is just a matter of convention depending on the dictionary you are using. But the sounds /ɜː/ are not /əː/ pronounced the same.

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    Do you have any references for "it is not the same sound". It's not the same phoneme, but I suspect a large fraction of British English speakers pronounce /ɜː/ and /ə/ with the same actual vowel sound (while many other British English speakers use different vowels). Feb 26, 2021 at 12:08
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    And one of the reasons that Lexico has for replacing /ɜː/ with /əː/ is that many speakers use the exact same vowel sound for both phonemes. Feb 26, 2021 at 12:13
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    And this blog page quotes John Wells (a very highly respected former professor of phonetics at University College London) as saying that /ɜː/ is "a relatively long unrounded mid central vocoid, [əː]." So if you believe him, they are the same sound. Feb 26, 2021 at 12:27
  • @PeterShor: You should post your comments as an answer. Also see the Wikipedia page on Mid Central Vowel, it gives [bɜ̝ːd] (raised [ɜ]) for RP. Feb 26, 2021 at 12:29
  • @DecapitatedSoul Wikipedia??? In any case, see Peter’s first para. Feb 26, 2021 at 12:59

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