SCHWA [From German schwa, from Hebrew shwā, from shāwʾ, emptiness. Hebrew grammarians traditionally mark consonants with signs referred to in Roman lettering as sheva or shewa. These signs indicate either no following VOWEL sound (quiescent or movable sheva). There was nothing comparable in alphabets derived from Roman until the development of the International Phonetic Alphabet in the late 19c, when an inverted e was introduced to serve the same purpose as vocal sheva]. Also shwa, neutral vowel, obscure vowel. A term in PHONETICS for a central vowel sound represented by the symbol /ə/. To make a schwa in isolation, the tongue is neither pushed forward nor pulled back, neither raised nor lowered, and the lips are neither spread nor rounded: hence the term ‘neutral’. Although not represented in the conventional alphabet, schwa is the commonest vowel sound in English. It typically occurs in unstressed syllables, and in the following list is shown for illustrative purposes as if it were an everyday letter: əbove, əgain, səppose, photəgraph, scenəry, sofə. It is often an ill-defined voice gap between consonants: for example, in today it is formed as the tongue moves away from the alveolar ridge on the release of /t/ and returns to form /d/ (t'day). Many languages do not have a neutral vowel, and this causes problems for foreign speakers of English from such backgrounds. However, another vowel may replace it: for example, the short /a/ of North Indian languages (as in the first vowel of Punjab) is used as a schwa in IndE, or the /a/ in many kinds of AfrE: speaker /spika/. Learners who have not had access to native-speaker English tend not to attempt a schwa at all, but to pronounce words more or less according to the vowel letters of the spelling. Their speech is therefore likely to be SYLLABLE-timed rather than stress-timed. See VOWEL QUANTITY, WEAK VOWEL, and the letter entries A, E, I, O, R, U.
schwa / shwä/ • n. Phonet. the unstressed central vowel (as in a moment ago), represented by the symbol (ə) in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
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