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What Is a Schwa?

The schwa is a vowel sound that appears in unstressed syllables and kind of sounds like "uh." It's also been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel. This scene from "The Princess Bride" will help you understand the schwa.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #673

The 1987 movie “The Princess Bride,” directed by Rob Reiner, is the source of more catch phrases and funny lines than almost any other movie I can think of, but one of the silliest comes from a scene on a boat. The swordsman Inigo Montoya and his hulking comrade Fezzik pass the time by playing a rhyming game. Montoya offers a line, such as, “That Vizzini, he can fuss.” He’s talking about their irritable boss named Vizzini. Fezzik responds with, “I think he like to scream at us.” Vizzini is annoyed at the game, and tells them to quit, but they continue. Montoya says, “Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?” Fezzik answers, “If there are, we all be dead.” As the camera pans away from the boat, we can hear Vizzini getting angrier, barking out, “No more rhymes now. I mean it!” A second later, Fezzik comes back with, “Anybody want a peanut?”

I still laugh at that line. It’s just such a non-sequitur, and what makes it even funnier is that Fezzik is rhyming “mean it” with “peanut.” It’s such an obvious cheat to make the rhyme work―after all, “mean it” doesn’t rhyme with “peanut.” Or does it?

Just by looking at the spelling, you wouldn’t think so. The last syllable of “mean it” is spelled I-T, but the last syllable of “peanut” is spelled N-U-T. But if you say “mean it” and “peanut” quickly enough, the rhyme works. How is that possible?

Meet the Schwa

The answer is: the schwa. “Schwa” is the name for the nondescript, middle-of-the-road vowel that almost any other English vowel can turn into. It’s the vowel spelled with an A in “agree,” and with E in “faded.” It’s the vowel spelled with I in “rapid,” and with O in “salmon.” It’s spelled with a U in “bonus,” with a Y in “vinyl,” and with various combinations of vowel symbols in words such as “nation,” “famous,” and “ocean.” You don’t spread your lips wide to make it, the way you do with the vowel sound in “tree.” You don’t round your lips to make it, as you do with the vowel sound in “shoe.” You don’t even have to open your mouth very wide to say it, unlike the vowel sound in “ball”―or ironically, the one in the word “schwa” itself.  Instead, you just relax your face muscles, let gravity pull your jaw down a little bit, and turn on your voice: “uh.” 

This totally relaxed way of making a schwa is related to one other important fact about it in English: The schwa only occurs in unstressed syllables. Did you notice that the schwa sound in all my earlier examples occurred in unstressed syllables? Here’s the list again: “agree,” “faded,” “rapid,” “salmon,” “vinyl,” “nation,” “famous,” and “ocean.”

The word “schwa” comes to us from German, which got it from the Hebrew word “shva” or “sheva,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary meant “emptiness” or “vanity.” In an article in “Mental Floss” titled “Fun Facts about the Schwa,” linguist Arika Okrent writes that “shva” is a symbol written below consonants in Hebrew to indicate a vowel like the one in the English word “let.” 

The Symbol Is a Rotated E

The symbol for the schwa is sometimes described as a backward lowercase “e,” but this isn’t accurate. The schwa symbol is actually a lowercase “e” that’s been rotated. Imagine a lowercase “e” painted on a doorknob. If you grab that doorknob and turn it 180 degrees, you’ll turn that lowercase “e” into a schwa symbol. 

Or if you’re a bad spy, and you’re sitting on a park bench pretending to read a newspaper, but you’ve got the newspaper turned upside down, you’ve turned all the lowercase “e”s into schwas―a dead giveaway that you’re up to something. In fact, the symbol for the schwa is also called a “turned e.” 

A backward lowercase “e,” on the other hand, looks different. Imagine a lowercase “e” cut out of construction paper, lying on a desktop in front of you. If you pick it up and flip it over from right to left or left to right, you’ll be looking at a backward lowercase “e,” also known as a “mirrored e.” In fact, the mirrored e is a legitimate symbol for another vowel, but it’s one that only occurs in certain dialects of English that I don’t speak, and various languages of the world that I really don’t speak!

Are Schwa and Short U the Same?

According to Arika Okrent, the turned e symbol was used for the schwa sound as far back as 1812, but came to be called “schwa” only around 1895. Before that, she writes, people called it “the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel.” Earlier, I said this vowel was “uh.” If you learned to read using the phonics system, you might remember this as the vowel sound known as short U. What exactly is the difference between the schwa and the “short U” vowel? Some phonics resources say that a schwa is “softer and weaker” than a short U, but what exactly does that mean?

We can get a more precise idea by looking at a vowel chart, such as the one in the official chart for the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA vowel chart is arranged so that vowels that require you have your mouth almost closed are written at the top. These are called the high vowels, and in English, they’re the vowels in “fleece” and “goose.” The vowels that require you to have your mouth wide open are at the bottom. These are the low vowels, and in English, they’re the vowels in “trap” and “lot.” (Notice how you open your mouth more when you say these words.) The schwa appears halfway down in these charts: It’s what they call a mid vowel. The chart is also arranged so that vowels that require the front of the tongue to do most of the movement are written on the left. In English, these “front” vowels are the ones in “trap,” “dress,” “face,” “kit,” and “fleece.” The vowels that require the back of the tongue to do most of the movement are written on the right. In English, these “back” vowels are the ones in “lot,” “thought,” “goat,” “foot,” and “goose.” Once again, schwa is right in the middle: It’s a mid central vowel. 

So where is the short U vowel in relation to the schwa? It’s a frustrating question. If you’re looking at the IPA chart, you should look for a character that resembles an upside-down V. This character is called “wedge.” In some older IPA charts, wedge is near the top center: It’s a high central vowel. However, in the most recent IPA chart, wedge is over on the right, slightly farther down the chart than the schwa: It’s a mid back vowel. Which is correct? I don’t know!

But I do know the answer to whether “mean it” rhymes with “peanut.” The answer is that it depends on the speaker. Some speakers will reduce the final vowel in “mean it” to a schwa, while others will still pronounce it as the vowel in “kit”--short I, in the phonics system. Some speakers pronounce “peanut” with stress only on the first part, the same way as you’d stress only the first part of the name “Chapman.” Other speakers, pronounce each part of the word “peanut” as a stressed syllable, similar to the way you’d stress both parts of “Batman.” For speakers who schwa-ify the final syllable in both “mean it” and “peanut,” the rhyme is perfect. For speakers who schwa-ify one or the other, the rhyme is less than perfect. And for other speakers, who don’t schwa-ify either of them, there is no way that “peanut” rhymes with “mean it”! Maybe you're one of those speakers, and up until now you've never known it. Now that you do, how about a doughnut? 

Neal Whitman is an independent PhD linguist who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. You can also find him on Twitter as @LiteralMinded.

Works Cited

International Phonetic Association. "The International Phonetic Alphabet (revised to 2015)." 2015. Web. https://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/sites/default/files/IPA_Kiel_2015.pdf
Okrent, Arika. "9 Fun Facts about the Schwa." Mental Floss. 2014. Web. http://mentalfloss.com/article/56821/9-fun-facts-about-schwa

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