The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech

Arika Okrent explains schwas on Lexicon Valley

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.


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.

Schwas are very common in English (although they’re surprisingly difficult to play in IPA Scrabble, because they’re far more common in polysyllabic words). They’re less common in other languages, and are one of the things that contribute to non-native accents in both directions: English speakers tend to reduce vowels to schwa even when it’s unwarranted, and speakers of many other languages tend to pronounce too many full vowels. 

Because of how common and distinctively-shaped schwa is, it (along with wugs) have become a ubiquitous icon for linguistics. For example, there’s a schwa necklace, dozens of schwa mugs and t-shirts, and of course the publication Schwa Fire
International Phonetic Alphabet Cross Stitch Pattern

One for the linguistics fans out there - a counted cross stitch sampler pattern featuring the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), interspersed with lovely folky borders. Why? Why not.

This is pretty darn adorable. And, I assume, that if you have all the IPA symbols blocked out like that, it would be fairly easy to recombine them to transcribe anything else you wanted.  

For a more traditionally-laid-out IPA cross stitch, superlinguo did a consonant chart a while back, as well as a solitary schwa.  

Other fun IPA memorabilia include the IPA eye chart, which I had on my wall for quite a long time, and a schwa necklace and earrings.
Words Without Vowels Are Rlly Srs Bsns
Whether they're strictly vowel-less or just reduced, though, don't these words just mean the same as their longer equivalents? Well, not so fast. Some of them do, pretty much: pls and thx and k are just slightly quicker and more informal than please and thanks and ok. But srs bsns embodies a contradiction: "serious business" sounds, well, serious, and internet slang is anything but — it's not surprising that its primary use has always been sarcastic. And finally here's a question that I can't figure out by myself: if you use any of these terms, how do you pronounce them in your head? Since it's hard to pronounce a word without any vowels at all, I think I often end up mentally saying the vowels a bit quicker or less distinctly than the vowels in the original words, but they're still basically there. Srs is perhaps only two syllables (ser-russ rather than se-ri-ous), and v. and p get pronounced like the letters. But of course, I can't hear anyone else's voice inside their head, so how would you say them?

I’m on Mental Floss talking about the rlly srs bsns of vowel-less words. I’ve heard from a couple people on twitter already that they also tend to mentally pronounce these words with basically all schwas, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone else does, or if there are other ways people pronounce them. 

How to Calculate the Length of Your Vocal Tube!

…would be the weirdest WikiHow article, but then again there’s this.  Anyway, surely this is something you’re curious about, so let’s get to it. I know this looks a little long, but it’s very straightforward. (you will need a mic [built-in works fine])

Vowel Acoustics: Everything is a Tube (actual class slide title)

So sound moves like a wave; air molecules bump up against each other and that energy (not the actual molecules) travels out from a source like ripples do from a dropped pebble (there are other fancy mechanics to sound but we don’t them need rn). Put the wave starter (vocal cords + lung air) in a tube and you basically have an idealized model of the vocal tract. Except we make many waves all at once. The full range of frequencies (the measurements for a specific “wave” in Hertz) you produce starts at your glottis, and then as the sound travels through your mouth tube out, certain frequencies resonate and are amplified, while others are absorbed and muted. Depending on the resonating frequencies you get different sounds.

Think of it like turing forks: you hit one and it makes a sound, and if you get close to another fork with the same resonating frequency it’ll make sound too, overall making that sound louder (increase the amplitude), but if it’s different it wont. The source spectrum starts with All The Tuning Fork Possibilities, but depending on the shape of your mouth only some will resonate. The peaks in the output, where a harmonic (the little evenly-spaced squiggles) has resonated and gotten louder, are the formants. These are what we want to look at since they tell us info about what’s happening in the mouth.

Ok so how is air sound going to turn into length? Because we have a handy formula of course: F1 = c/4L , where F1 is the frequency of the first formant, c is the speed of sound in whatever medium your talking in (eg. air vs. water), and L is the length of the tube. A usual speed of sound in air is ~34,500 cm/s, so now we just need that F1–enter, Praat! (free download) Praat lets you record sound and look at the spectrogram of it and do transcription whatnot and all this stuff, but I am just going to walk you through what we need: the sound of your /ə/ (”schwa”)

To get this sound think of the first vowel in “ahead.” It’s probably not quite “uuuh,” it’s just your mouth open and no tongue anything–we’re trying to approximate a plain tube. Click on the schwa here/play with the vowels for an idea. Think you have it? Open Praat. Hit New > Record mono sound > leave the settings and just record, title it “schwa” > Save to list & close. Select the file in your list and hit “View & Edit.” Look at that sound!

The thick bands are your formants, (if the red lines don’t show automatically, do Formant > Show formants) and at least the first three should be pretty evenly spaced like this, it’s sort of a defining feature of /ə/. If your second from the bottom line is too high, you need to make a more back sound, and if the first one is too high, you need to make a higher sound (and visa versa for each). Don’t stress too much though. Now click Formant > get first formant, and there it is! (or click on it, look to the left) It should be around 500-600, if it’s wildly different rerecord it. Stick it in your equation, here’s mine:

F1 = 34,500/4L

L x F1 = 34,500/4 = 8,625

L = 8,625/F1 = 8,625/604 = ~14cm

This is within the pretty average range. Obviously the finer you do your math the closer answer you’ll get, I’m just keeping it simple here. If you want to save your schwa, now is the time, and if you just close Praat now you’ll lose it because it wont automatically save recordings. 

How cool and kind of weird is that? Also, this makes it pretty obvious that the length of your vocal tract is rather related to your pitch–tall people (like adults) generally have a lower /ə/ than shorter people (like children). Of course so is air speed, but that doesn’t usually change much, unless you inhale helium of course.

I hope you enjoy your new party trick, and maybe now want to explore more things in Praat. If anything is unclear or you are curious about something else don’t hesitate to let me know!

okay, so let me tell you a story.

i was wearing my backpack while walking when a stranger noticed the schwa key chain i have on my backpack. the person was interested, and he asked me, “what is that upside down e on your backpack?”

i said, “oh, that? that’s a schwa.”

and then he asked, “what’s a schwa?”

and i said, “it is a symbol that represents uh.”

“that represents what?”

“it represents uh,” i repeated.

“it represents a what?” he asked.

realizing where the confusion is coming from, i said, “it represents a mid-central vowel sound that is unstressed in english.”

then he was just like, “oh… okay” and then he quickly walked away from me.
Accent Tag Nation
From Harvard to YouTube: the birth of accent tagging and what it's teaching linguists.

An article from Schwa Fire about the YouTube accent tag, the linguistic studies where the words used in the accent challenge come from, and how linguists and media are now using the accent tag videos for further linguistic analysis. Excerpt:  

Chicago’s National Public Radio station WBEZ did a program about the Chicago accent, accompanied by a blog post. The producers were white, and the program’s focus was almost exclusively on how white Chicagoans use vowels differently from people in other parts of the country (many Chicagoans pronounce the word jockey just like Jackie, for instance). The program went on to say that African Americans in Chicago don’t use these vowels, and further, it claimed that they have an alternate set of vowels that are invariable, no matter what city they live in. “AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas,” WBEZ said. “Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc. So while an African-American Chicagoan might not sound like a white Chicagoan, he or she may sound a whole lot like an African-American Washingtonian.”

What happened next depended in large part on YouTube’s Accent Tag phenomenon. WBEZ ended up doing a second, mea culpa, program dedicated to African-American English and recognizing that African-American English pronunciation varies from city to city.

The new show was created after the radio station was contacted by Amanda Hope, who was indignant about the first program. She left a comment on WBEZ’s blog: “I’m an African-American woman who was born and raised on Chicago’s Southside but I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. I’ve also spent a significant amount of time in the South. Let me be the first to tell you that AAE has a variety of accents. In fact, Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD are about a 45-minute car drive away from one another and there is a stark contrast between the accents of blacks from Baltimore and the accents of blacks from DC. To take my point even further, Black Chicagoans make fun of the accent of Black St. Louis residents all the time because of their “errrrrr” sound. I’m so tired of articles and studies suggesting that African Americans are comprised of some homogenous group.”

When WBEZ contacted Hope, she buttressed her argument by pointing the radio people to Accent Tag videos by blacks across the country, including Chicago. The videos impressed the producers, and the station’s subsequent “Chicago blaccent” show gave African-American taggers a day in the elite-media sun. WBEZ staff posted black tagger videos, and searched out some of the Chicago creators for lengthy interviews about their perceptions of regional differences in African-American English.

(Read the rest.) 

Linguistics in Cabin Pressure's "Gdansk" episode: Polish names and the sportscaster present

Two relevant names, “Gdansk” itself and passenger Madame Szyszko-Bohusz. According to John Finnemore’s blog

Madame Szyszko-Bohusz takes her name from my address when I lived in Krakow (and therefore indirectly from this gentleman). The full address was [number] Ulica Szyszko-Bohusza, Przegorzały; and I was very proud of learning how to pronounce it.

Although according to a Polish fan, her name as said in the episode is still mispronounced: It should be pronounced as shi-shko not shi-shi-shko. (Indeed, there are only two instances of “sz” in Szyszko, so it’s not clear where a third “sh” would come from.)

The Polish pronunciation of Gdańsk is, per Wikipedia, /gdaɲsk/, while English speakers typically pronounce it /ɡəˈdænsk/ because /gd/ is just not a possible onset cluster in English so you need to insert an epenthetic schwa to break it up. (We last saw epenthetic schwas as one possible explanation for the pronunciation of Edinburgh). 

[Update: Fixed the accent mark in Gdańsk to be on the n, where it indicates an alveopalatal-nasal. I am leaving the Gdanskes that refer to the episode accentless however, as that appears to be the BBC’s practice.]

There’s also a game of Passenger Derby: 

ARTHUR: And they’re off! And it’s Trombone Churchill taking an early lead. He had his seatbelt undone behind his paper. Classic manoeuvre there. But he’s slow out of the chair and it’s Little Bighead who’s up in the aisle first. Little Bighead looking strong but, oh! He’s tangled with a stray cellist! And now Trombone Churchill’s making up ground! But who’s this streaking up on the outside? It’s Harry Potter’s Granny! She’s past Little Bighead, she’s past Wandering Cellist! And in the final straight it’s neck and neck between Trombone Churchill and Potter’s Gran! Potter’s Gran and Trombone Churchill as they reach the door and oh! Trombone Churchill takes an elbow to the gut and it’s Potter’s Gran! She’s in and she’s safe!

Arthur as sports commentator naturally uses the sportcaster present, which is really a type of aspect (compare “he shoots, he scores” with “he’s shooting, he’s scoring” – both are present, but the first is simple present and the second is progressive). I previously talked about the sportcaster present with reference to the World Cup

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, cabinpressureadvent is posting daily links to listen to one episode per day of the hilarious BBC radio drama Cabin Pressure, which I highly recommend listening to because a) it’s great and b) it doesn’t look like I’m stopping any time soon. (Although I will be interspersing other posts, so this blog won’t turn into a 100% linguistics-in-Cabin-Pressure blog for the month. And hopefully the quotes will provide sufficient context even if you aren’t listening.) 

Previous linguistics in Cabin PressureAirline vs Airdot in Abu DhabiStructural ambiguity and scalar implicature in BostonSuperlatives and “would do” in CremonaAt-issue-ness, passives, and metaphors in DouzWhy “Edinbra”, plural sports teams, and “posh Welsh” in EdinburghMore on Edinburgh/Edinbra,Word games in Fitton. Season 2: NATO alphabet and chiasmus in Helsinki.