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5.20: The Vowel Sound Schwa

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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1. There is another very common sound that is a lot like short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*}, or [u]. It is the sound you hear at the beginning of the word alone, a soft “uh” sound. It is called schwa (rhymes with paw ). We will write schwa with what looks like an upside-down <e>: [ə].

Schwa sounds like the short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*}, [u], except that schwa is weaker. Short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} always has strong stress, but schwa always has weak stress. Schwa sounds like a very weak [u].

2. Here are some words that have two vowel sounds, a short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} and a schwa. The short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} always has strong stress. The schwa always has weak stress. Sometimes the strong stress is on the second vowel sound, but usually it is on the first. Mark the strong stress in each word: b\begin{align*}\acute{u}\end{align*}tton.

\begin{align*}& \acute{\text{o}}\text{v\underline{e}n} && \text{tr}\acute{\text{u}}\text{stf\underline{u}l} && \text{c}\acute{\text{o}}\text{us\underline{i}n} && \text{st}\acute{\text{o}}\text{m\underline{a}ch} \\ & \text{\underline{a}b}\acute{\text{o}}\text{ve} && \text{d}\acute{\text{o}}\text{z\underline{e}n} && \text{\underline{a}dj}\acute{\text{u}}\text{st} && \text{c\underline{o}nfr}\acute{\text{o}}\text{nt}\end{align*}

3. Each weak vowel in those eight words is the sound schwa. Underline the vowel letters that spell schwa in each word. You should find five different spellings of schwa: \begin{align*}<\mathrm{a}>\end{align*}, <e> , \begin{align*}<\mathrm{i}>\end{align*} , <o>, and \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*}:

4. Among those eight words, schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<a>\end{align*}; in above, adjust and stomach.

5. Schwa is spelled <e> in oven and dozen.

6. Schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<\mathrm{i}>\end{align*} in cousin.

7. Schwa is spelled <o> in confront.

8. Schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} in trustful.

Word Find This Word Find contains fourteen words, all of which contain schwa. We are not telling you ahead of time what the fourteen words are, but we have printed the letters that spell the fourteen schwas in bold type. Your job is to find the fourteen words, circle them, and then use them to fill in the blanks at the bottom of the page.

Schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<\mathrm{a}>\end{align*} in pleasant, among, and company.

Schwa is spelled <e> in sentence, problem, and enemy.

Schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<\mathrm{i}>\end{align*} in president and cousin.

Schwa is spelled <o> in confront.

Schwa is spelled \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} in succeed and trustful.

Schwa is spelled <ai> in mountain.

Schwa is spelled <ea> in ocean.

Schwa is spelled <ou> in famous.

Teaching Notes.

1. The somewhat unusual-looking word schwa comes from an old Hebrew word that meant “emptiness, no vowel sound.” Most unstressed English vowels tend to become reduced to schwa, though some reduce to an unstressed [i] — for instance, the \begin{align*}<\mathrm{a}>\end{align*} in the suffix -age in such words as leverage and average. Actually, what we are calling schwa and symbolizing [ə] represents a rather ill-defined range of sounds running from the “uh”-like sound illustrated in this lesson to something more like short \begin{align*}<\mathrm{i}>\end{align*}, [i]. In fact, Webster's Third International Dictionary uses a combination symbol, a dotted schwa, to show this range. A bit of variation is to be expected and condoned in the pronunciation of unstressed vowels.

2. The most important points of this lesson are that schwa is always unstressed and that most unstressed vowels reduce to schwa. Since there is at least one schwa in most words of more than one syllable, there are a lot of schwas in English speech. All those schwas pose problems for spellers, since they can be spelled, as this lesson shows, with any vowel and nearly any vowel combination.

3. American dictionaries have only been using the schwa symbol in their pronunciation respellings for the last few years. It is important that the students understand how their dictionaries represent the reduced sound we symbolize as [ə].

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Jul 07, 2015
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