Do you know the most important sound in English?
Have you ever seen this letter before today: ə? It’s a letter in the international phonetic alphabet. It’s called “schwa” and it represents the most important sound in English. You can hear schwa in many words, for example: about, prepare, family, chocolate, supply. Click on the audio file to listen to schwa in these words.
Why is it the most important sound in English? Well, you will notice that every vowel (a,e,i,o,u) is sometimes pronounced with the schwa sound. Schwa is the unstressed (weak) vowel in English words. Think of the word “prepare”. It has two syllables: pre- and -pare. The second syllable, -pare, is pronounced longer and louder; it’s the stressed syllable. The first syllable, pre-, is pronounced faster and softer; it’s the unstressed syllable with schwa. So, schwa is essential for good pronunciation of English words. In fact, if you don’t pronounce the schwa, your English will be difficult to understand.
Like music, languages have rhythm and melody; think of Italian or Brazilian Portuguese. The rhythm and melody of English is closely connected to schwa. When you learn new vocabulary in English you should learn the stress pattern of the word. Ask yourself: which syllable or syllables are pronounced the longest and loudest?
For a good explanation with a lot of examples, watch the video below.
Can you find the unstressed vowel (schwa) in the following words?