The Ubiquitous Schwa
My word for the day: ubiquitous, meaning “found everywhere,” as in the ubiquitous effects of global warming, the ubiquitous credit card, the ubiquitous hand-shake of politicians, etc.
And the ubiquitous schwa. What’s a schwa, you ask? Of all the vowels in English, the schwa is the most common. It’s the most common, yet totally invisible.
It’s the so-called “neutral” vowel, used in unstressed syllables and words in English, and it’s invisible since no particular letter represents it in spelling. You will find it right in the middle of my vowel chart, labeled “mid-central.”
You hear me use the schwa in the following words: amazing, invisible, politics, catastrophe, among, correct, pheasant, and twice in the word of the day, ubiquitous. As you see, any of the five regular vowel letters – A, E, I, O, or U – can be spoken using the schwa.
In American English, the schwa comes in an r-colored variety too, as in: manager, particular, mother, father, perhaps, loser, winner, etc.
But it’s not in only polysyllabic words like these that we find the schwa. Notice it in these single-syllable words too: the time of the day, a week at a time, as nice as you. You see, many English words have both a strong and a weak form; at and as, for example, are pronounced two ways [demonstrate] depending on their importance in the phrase.
Beginners in English often make the mistake of pronouncing every vowel in its strong, pure form. e.g. [demonstrate] unusual, particular, as nice as you, catastrophe, instead of [demonstrate]. Until they learn the schwa, their rhythm in spoken English will never be quite right.
Here’s a famous speech from Shakespeare. Listen to my reading, listening for all the schwas, and then practice the speech yourself.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper‘d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Jaques, As You Like It, 2:7