S.O.S.! It's a Schwa! Part 2 of 3.

Jura Kool


Stressed, Secondary Stressed, and Unstressed Syllables
A stressed or accented syllable is a syllable that is longer, louder, or higher-pitched. Because it often has to do with vowel length when spoken, it identifies as the ‘longer’ syllable. 

An unstressed or unaccented syllable is a syllable that is the shortest. There can be multiple unstressed syllables; unlike the stressed syllable, there is only one. In English, the Schwa shows up in unstressed syllables as it’s classified as a quick, fast sound. 

 It is sometimes difficult to recognize the stressed syllable in words, especially for struggling readers and spellers who have difficulty separating words into syllables.

You can easily hear the stressed syllable if you ‘call out to the dog’ or ‘call out to your child.’ For example, if your dog’s name is Rover, and you call out to him, you can easily hear the stress in the syllable when calling the name RO-ver [ˈɹɔ.vɛʁ]. 

In fact, in two-syllable words, most of the time, the first syllable is accented (Barton, 2000). There can be what is considered secondary stress in three or more syllable words where the syllable is longer than the unstressed syllable but shorter than the stressed syllable, which is often referred to as the primary stress.

An example of this would be the word emphasis [ˈɛɱfəsɪs] (Mehlin, 2020). The bolded em [ˈɛɱ] is for the primary stress, the italicized sis [sɪs] is the secondary stress, and the pha [fə] is the unstressed syllable where the letter ‘a’ is going to the schwa sound. It’s also apparent that a syllable having the greatest amount of letters doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accented, in the word ACrobat [ˈæk.ɹə.bæt], bat syllable has the most letters in a syllable yet AC [ˈæk] is the accented syllable.

The multisyllabic words excluded from having a stressed syllable are compound words, two individual words put together that refer to one specific thing (Barton, 2000). Like sandbox and lipstick, words that do not have a specifically stressed syllable are considered equally stressed. Understanding stressed and unstressed syllables is the first step to helping us identify where Schwa shows up in words.

Semantics of Schwa
The branch of linguistics that discusses the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences are all included in the study of semantics (Yule, p.342). The semantics of Schwa is important to bring up because the meaning of a sentence, phrase, or word can change based on the stressed syllable in words. In the word ‘combine’ it can be said comBINE [kəmˈbaɪn] or COMbine [ˈkɑm.baɪn] depending on the context of the sentence and the meaning; depending on whether you comBINE [kəmˈbaɪn] substances or items together or you COMbine [ˈkɑm.baɪn] in unity or joined forces (Mehlin, 2020).  A suffix added to a word that is two syllables such as ‘able’ or ‘ity’ can completely change the meaning of a word and can move the Schwa or make it disappear entirely, such as the word LEgal [ˈliɡəl] which has a schwa when adding ‘ity’ to it. When adding the suffix ‘ity’, it changes the stress of the syllable and becomes leGALity [li.ˈgæl.ɪti] which no longer has the schwa sound and has a slightly different meaning when the suffix ‘ity’ is added (Barton, 2000).

Semantically, the context of a sentence can completely change based on where the stressed syllables are within a sentence. It is common for function words, which are the words used for grammatical purposes to convey better meaning but have little to no meaning on their own tend to go to Schwa, examples would be the, a, what, was, of, does, for, do, etc. (Mehlin, 2020).  These function words often go to Schwa within a sentence, such as I WENT TO the [ðə] STORE. However, we can notice in the sentence, ‘I didn’t see THE [ði] apple’ the is accented in this sentence due to the vowel being the initial sound of the proceeding word.  When we want to emphasize THE in the sentence, your intonation of the sentence can highlight the function words such as, “I went to THE [ði]  store,” said if you felt the need to defend where you went. Sometimes people will stress an article in a phrase like ‘A [e] dog,’ but it can become unstressed in a sentence, ‘I SAW a [ə] DOG..’  Although not everyone agrees, r-controlled vowels can show up as Schwa within a sentence, “Let’s go FOR [fɔɹ] it!” can turn into “LET’S GO fur [fə(ɹ)] IT!” (Mehlin, 2020). Notice these slight changes in meaning based on when syllables are stressed or unstressed when Schwa occurs. Where the Schwa shows up in phrases or sentences depends on the surrounding words and context.

Elision and Epenthesis of Schwa
There are a couple of interesting ways that Schwa can literally appear or disappear in words. Literally? How did you say that word in your head? Was it [ˈlɪtəɹəli] or the shorter version that includes omission of the first Schwa [ˈlɪtɹəli]? The process of leaving a sound out of the pronunciation of a word is elision (Yule, p.335). These are commonly called Syncope schwas. These are schwas that should be said in a multi-syllable word where a medial schwa is; however, it is deleted in casual conversation. A few common ones are chocolate /choc/o/late [ˈt͡ʃɔk.ə.lɪt/choc/lit/ [ˈt͡ʃɔk.lɪt]; camera /cam/e/ra [ˈkæm.ə.ɹə] /cam/ra [ˈkæm.ɹə]; or caramel, /car/a/mal/[ˈkɑɹ.ə.məl], car/mal [ˈkɑɹ.məl]  (Mehlin, 2020).  

The same thing happens in reverse in a process called epenthesis, a sound change involving adding a sound to a word (Yule, p.335). A couple of examples of this is words like ath/ə/lete for athlete, burg/ə/lar for burglar, or real/ə/tor for realtor (Mehlin, 2020). Depending on how you enunciate words and the region you live, do you add or omit the schwa sound? If spelling this sound was not challenging enough, now we must worry about different dialects where individuals add or delete Schwa when speaking.

Locations of Schwa
Now that we have explored the more elusive ways that Schwa shows up let’s explore the places where Schwa almost always occurs. There are exceptions with any rule in English, so we’ll say ‘most of the time’ or ‘almost’ always. A clever student will notice those exceptions and may find it interesting how the following patterns are where Schwa shows up the most. See Table 2 for a breakdown of these dependable locations of Schwa, broken into rules, definition, and example. Schwa is often taught in various explicit, systematic reading programs in different ways, but the overall principle of the following schwa rules is the same. 

Table 2. Dependable Locations of Schwa    (Barton, 2000; Kleiber, 2011; Mehlin, 2020; Wilson, 1996)
Closed A or O goes to Schwa   Any closed syllable that is unstressed and has the letter ‘a’ or ‘o’ in it will go to Schwa. Cotton; combine; infant; apron; dragon
V-L at the end goes to Schwa Any vowel-L at the end of words that is unstressed goes to Schwa. Postal; tunnel; pencil; pistol
ANY Open-A goes to Schwa Any open syllable ‘a’ that is unstressed or at the end of words goes to Schwa. Banana; across; pacific; America; privacy
Consonant-LE Syllable Type Often L.E. sounds like [əl]. Pickle; tackle; stumble; marble
EN/IN at the end of words. Any Vowel-N ending can go to Schwa. The tongue often will clip that vowel shorter as it raises to the roof of the mouth to articulate the [n] sound closing the open airway production of any vowel sound. The schwa sound is much faster to produce to get to the [n] sound. Taken; cabin; spoken
Open Medial i/e making the schwa sound. When enunciated, you hear the open short [ɪ/ɛ] in the middle of the three or more syllable words. When said in everyday conversation, often the [ɪ/ɛ] turns to Schwa. Confident, elephant, dignity.
Scribal ‘O’ A theory scribes wanted to write the ‘o’ for the spelling of the schwa or wedge sounds when writing words so that the words traditionally spelled with a ‘u’ were not confused with letters like m, n, or v. Often, the scribal ‘o’ sounds like a schwa sound. Mother; another; come; wonder; love
Any TION/SION endings go to SchwaThe -ion ending in words, Pronounced shun for tion or sion or zhun for sion based on the vowel before it, these endings always go to Schwa.Elision; vacation; decision; fiction

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