Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A mid-central neutral vowel, typically occurring in unstressed syllables, as the final vowel of English sofa.
  • n. The symbol (ə) used to represent an unstressed neutral vowel and, in some systems of phonetic transcription, a stressed mid-central vowel, as in but.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. An indeterminate central vowel sound as the "a" in "about", represented as /ə/ in IPA and /@/ in SAMPA and X-SAMPA.
  • n. The character ə, an upside-down, backwards, lower-case E

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. a neutral middle vowel; occurs in unstressed syllables

Etymologies

German, from Hebrew šəwā', probably from Syriac (nuqzē) šwayyā, even (points), pl. passive participle of šwā, to be even; see šwy in Semitic roots.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
German Schwa, from Hebrew שְׁוָא (š’vā), meaning "nought". (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • There's nae fuckin schwa in the Roman alfabet so ye cannae ever really be akyirit, ye ken?

    Poland Whee, Krakow's Heaven

  • A correspondent from Brazil writes to ask about the origins of the phonetics term schwa, used to identify, for example, the English mid-central vowel sound of unstressed the or the final vowel in sofa, and written with an inverted e.

    Archive 2007-08-01

  • This neutral vowel phoneme known as schwa is produced by the vibration of the vocal cords alone, with the tongue in a neutral position and requiring a minimal amount of articulatory effort.

    Recently Uploaded Slideshows

  • You referred to the vowel in the first syllable of the “PEH-duh-file” pronunciation as being a schwa, but the schwa is a sound that occurs only in unaccented syllables, like the first syllable of “about.”

    The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time

  • In the science of language that calls itself linguistics, a schwa is a neutral vowel sound, its symbol an inverted e, pronounced uh and usually unstressed, as the a in ago or the i in easily.

    No Uncertain Terms

  • The ə is called schwa, but the other Hausa letters don't have a name in the standard X keysym table.

    Planet KDE

  • Only thin I'm curious about, is how do you plan to explain the difference between the appearance of a 'schwa' and a 'supershortschwa'.

    Precising on a new rule to explain Pre-IE word-final voicing

  • Also, its unstressed and reduced form, named "schwa", is likely to become a persistent problem if we consider that Portuguese unstressed vowels are not normally reduced.

    Recently Uploaded Slideshows

  • Two phonemes: a voiced dental fricative and a schwa.

    Notes on Notes

  • I would expect [məsəz] from a New Zealander, with the KIT-schwa merger.

    “Ms.”-ing the point « Motivated Grammar

Wordnik is becoming a not-for-profit! Read our announcement here.

Comments

Log in or sign up to get involved in the conversation. It's quick and easy.

  • I think we should change the pronunciation of these word to actually use the sound in question. Schwə.

    September 28, 2009

  • Schwa is the stomach punch sound. Heard here.
    (And she uses willow as an example word. :-))

    September 27, 2009

  • It's hard for me to love a phoneme that is by definition "neutral" and "toneless." Inescapable and necessary? Certainly, but so are plagues and forest fires!

    *sigh* I am certainly not a conoissieur of phonology and perhaps not yet developed a taste for the subtleties of the schwa. At present, however, I've simply resigned myself to its inevitability.

    September 26, 2009

  • September 25, 2009

  • I love me some schwas! I think it's less UHHHHHHHH than it is AHHHHHHH anyway. Maybe an unholy combination.

    Bilby, "venduhhhhh" sounds like you were talking to someone in Boston. Wicked pissah!

    September 24, 2009

  • Yes, schwa is teh alsome. I also like its rhotic brother ɚ as is apparent from r-coloring.
    And /ə/ (as a phoneme) has so many pleasant allophones in English. Sometimes I hear the unstressed “a�? in such words as askance, about or aura pronounced with a somewhat a-ish inclination ([�?] I'd say). In Blackadder I even once heard the schwa in “Blackadder�? pronounced that way—prior to that I thought that was just a German accent thing. The same is true for other unstressed vowels that are reduced to a schwa. See Wikipedia: Vowel reduction in English or of course the main article about vowel reduction.

    Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the schwa t-shirts.

    (A schwa might not be the most brilliant tune as phones go, but never judge a sound by its sound alone!)

    September 24, 2009

  • oh, but it does so much more!
    in French it's used for putting the extra bit of cabaret passion on a chanson (e.g. Piaf's il me l'a dit, l'a jure POUR LA VIIIIUUUUHHH), which is pretty awesome. and let's not forget Yogi Bear's schwa-epenthesis! in Hindi, you can shove a schwa into lots of consonant clusters, making learners grateful they don't have to pronounce 'ndh' and the like. how could anyone hate such a useful vowel?

    September 24, 2009

  • This page is very hurtful to me. My mom's name is Schwa.

    September 24, 2009

  • I heard a person say vendor yesterday with a schwa as the final vowel. It was most unseemly.

    September 24, 2009

  • I liken the schwa vowel to the least unmarked sound in English, the least common denominator, the color gray, the basal default unstressed phoneme, etc. Yet, I suspect one could not do without it, even for some simple workaday words.... perhaps someone should create a list of words from simple to complex for which the schwa phoneme is integral to the meaning of the word. Linguists, help us out here! List some minimal pairs....

    September 24, 2009

  • The most horrid vowel sound (and which occurs far to frequently in American English). Essentially, it is the sound of stupid: "uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh"

    September 24, 2009

  • I'm gaga for schwas, but sometimes even I can't take any more. For those times, there is a place for me.

    April 14, 2009

  • In the IPA it's the symbol �?

    July 20, 2008

  • Ah, who cares? I love this word. And verbing funs language. :)

    October 22, 2007

  • I like to use this as a verb meaning, "to pronounce as or with a schwa". The use does not appear to be legitimate . . . yet.

    December 29, 2006