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Is shwa a single sound or can it be used to denote multiple different sounds? I know different people might pronounce the same words differently but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the fact that to me shwa seems to be used to mean different sounds, sometimes even in the same word. Like puppet (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/puppet). There's no way u and e are pronounced the same way in that word. And yet the phonetic transcription uses shwa twice: pə-pət. So what's going on?

I searched this site and found e.g. this answer by herisson: What exactly is the "schwa" sound?

I think the crucial part is:

Basically, the realization of what is called the "schwa" varies depending on its position and the surrounding sounds.

But what does "realization" mean here? And why does it depend on position/surrounding sounds? Why is it different from all other sounds?

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    What dialect do you speak? American English? British? (The full answer regarding "puppet" differs between them.)
    – alphabet
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 12:42
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    I'm not a native speaker (I'm Polish) so can't say. I try to use American English, though.
    – NPS
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 12:46
  • Don't know where puppet has two schwas, but in AE, it starts like puppy. Anyway, the vowel is like a blank slate that bends to the will of the common speaker. Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 13:03
  • If it bends to the will then it's not really one sound, is it?
    – NPS
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 14:01
  • And why does it depend on position/surrounding sounds? Why is it different from all other sounds? There is nothing unusual about this. Lots of sounds vary depending on the surroundings. For instance the r-sound can be flapped between vowels; /k/ is articulated in different places depending on the vowel following; /l/ has two realizations, clear and dark.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 14:13

1 Answer 1

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There are two ways to pronounce the word puppet, /ˈpʌp.ət/ (see Merriam-Webster dictionary) and /ˈpʌp.ɪt/ (see Cambridge Dictionary). People with the weak vowel merger use the schwa; this merger is found in both British and American English.

As for the first syllable, a majority of Americans pronounce the phoneme /ʌ/ and the schwa /ə/ with the same sound, with the difference being that /ʌ/ is stressed. (This isn't true at all for British English.) This fact is why Merriam-Webster uses a schwa to represent the phoneme other dictionaries represent as /ʌ/.

So for Americans with the weak vowel merger, Merrian-Webster's pronunciation makes sense. Brits and Americans without it pronounce puppet differently.

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    You wrote that MW dict uses /ˈpʌp.ət/ but the website clearly states pə-pət - am I missing something? Also does anyone pronounce the word "puppet" with the same sound for both vowels (as the pə-pət seems to suggest)?
    – NPS
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 13:40
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    @NPS: Merriam-Webster uses a schwa as the symbol for the vowel that everybody else uses /ʌ/ for. Since the majority of Americans use the same vowel sound for /ʌ/ and /ə/, the difference being the stress, this notation isn't that bad. And many Americans with the weak vowel merger do use the same sound, or nearly the same sound, for both vowels. (Although the audio pronunciation in Merriam-Webster is clearly /ˈpʌp.ɪt/.) Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 15:16
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    @PeterShor In American English it would usually have the sound [ɪ] but it would be transcribed with the phoneme /ə/. Two very different things! The merged schwa phoneme is pronounced in different ways in different contexts.
    – alphabet
    Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 3:25
  • Apparently the phonetic transcription (or whatever it's called) is not for what I thought it was for. I thought it was for unambiguously showing what sounds are used for pronunciation of any given word but I guess not.
    – NPS
    Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 8:21
  • @alphabet: There are minimal pairs between weak /ɪ/ and /ə/, so they are two different phonemes. American Heritage Dictionary uses two different symbols for these two different sounds. What Merriam-Webster is doing is not a valid phonemic transcription for the large fraction of Americans that don't use the same vowels in rabbit and abbot. Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 11:46

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