9 Fun Facts About the Schwa

We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That’s why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ—an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.

1. Any written vowel can be a spoken schwa.

A schwa is the ‘uh’ sound found in an unstressed syllable. For example, the first syllable in amazing (ǝ-MA-zing), the first syllable in tenacious (tǝ-NA-cious), the second syllable in replicate (RE-plǝ-cate), the second syllable in percolate (PER-cǝ-late), the first syllable in supply (sǝ –PLY), the first syllable in syringe (sǝ-RINGE). That’s a written A, E, I, O, U and even a Y coming out as schwa in the spoken version.

2. It’s the most common vowel sound in English.

And this can make things very hard for English learners, because we don’t represent it in regular writing. You have to use clues about stress and syllable structure to figure out where to put it.

3. The word “schwa” comes from Hebrew.

In Hebrew writing, “shva” is a vowel diacritic that can be written under letters to indicate an ‘eh’ sound (which is not the same as our schwa). The term was first used in linguistics by 19th century Germany philologists, which is why we use the German spelling, "schwa."

4. The ǝ symbol was invented to show how people really talked.

The upside down e was first used as a symbol for the schwa sound by Johann Schmeller in his 1821 grammar of Bavarian German. Because he was describing the specific properties of a particular dialect, he needed a way to represent actual pronunciation.

5. Before people started calling it “schwa” in English (around 1895) it had a lot of nicknames.

It’s been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel.

6. English has a tendency to delete a syllable with a schwa.

What happened to the third syllable in the following words? Caramel (car-mel), separate (sep-rate), different (dif-rent), chocolate (choc-late), camera (cam-ra). They fell victim to a terrible disease called schwa syncope (or schwa deletion). Actually, it’s not so terrible, and it happens in lots of languages. A schwa syllable following the syllable that bears the main stress says, “well I’m not really needed here anyway” and skips town.

7. But English sometimes has a tendency to stick in extra schwa syllables.

In some dialects a schwa shows up to help bust up difficult consonant clusters. This process, called schwa epenthesis, can turn realtor into real-ǝ-tor, athlete into ath-ǝ-lete, nuclear into nuc-yǝ-ler, and film into fi-lǝm. It can also come in handy in drawing out words for dramatic effect, as in “cǝ-raaaaaa-zy!”

8. Schwa is so prevalent because English is a stress-timed language

Some languages are syllable-timed, like Spanish, where each syllable is roughly the same length, giving the impression of a steady “machine-gun” rhythm. English is a stress-timed language, meaning that the rhythmic impression is based on the regular timing of stress peaks, not syllables. If you want to speed up in Spanish, you shorten the length of all the syllables. If you want to speed up in English, you close the distance between stressed syllables. How? By greatly reducing the unstressed syllables. What vowel do unstressed syllables tend to get? Schwa. Here’s a good explanation of stress-timing with examples.

9. It’s the laziest sound there is.

Which is not a value judgment! I love schwa! But of all the sounds we use, it demands the least of us. All you have to do to make a schwa is start up the vocal cords. Other sounds require you to raise or lower the tongue, or move it forward or backward. They ask you to move your lips, or open your jaw. The schwa just is. Serene and undemanding. The vibration of air through the body to the outside world. The essence of speech itself.

If you like schwas, consider subscribing to Schwa Fire, a new digital publication about language for non-linguists. I have an article in the first installment (about a rescued trove of Yiddish recordings), and I hope you’ll support language journalism by checking out the entire issue!

Eye-Related Idioms From Around the World, Illustrated

"Apple of my eye." "Feast your eyes on this." "I have eyes in the back of my head." English has quite a few idioms that include the word "eye." But it's not the only language that does.

Contact lens retailer Lenstore gathered and illustrated 10 eye-related idioms from around the world that don't exist in English, which you can scroll through in the interactive infographic below or view here. In Spanish, the saying "Me costó un ojo de la cara," translated as "It cost me an eye from my face," means "to buy something that was extremely expensive." It's similar to the English idiom "It cost me an arm and a leg." In German, "Tomaten auf den Augen haben" ("To have tomatoes on the eyes") means "failing to spot something obvious."

The wonderful world of idioms stretches far beyond just eyes, though. Here, you can find out the origins of horse-related idioms like "hold your horses," and here you can learn about strange international rain-related idioms, like Greece's particularly peculiar "It's raining chair legs."

Learn more about how different cultures view the eye through the lens of these unique idioms below:

[h/t Lenstore]
Afternoon Map
The Literal Translation of Every Country's Name In One World Map

What's in a name? Some pretty illuminating insights into the history and culture of a place, it turns out. Credit Card Compare, an Australia-based website that offers its users assistance with choosing the credit card that's right for them, recently dug into the etymology of place names for a new blog post to create a world map that highlights the literal translation of the world's countries, including the United States of Amerigo (which one can only assume is a reference to Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who realized that North America was its own landmass).

"We live in a time of air travel and global exploration," the company writes in the blog. "We’re free to roam the planet and discover new countries and cultures. But how much do you know about the people who lived and explored these destinations in times past? Learning the etymology—the origin of words—of countries around the world offers us fascinating insight into the origins of some of our favorite travel destinations and the people who first lived there."

In other words: there's probably a lot you don't know about the world around you. But the above map (which is broken down into smaller bits below) should help.

For more detailed information on the background of each of these country names, click here. Happy travels!


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