Tuesday, June 28, 2011


On my last post “English and Portuguese: two different musicalities”  we’ve seen that in English just the stressed vowel is pronounced clearly, and what about the others? They are pronounced as a “schwa”. But what on Earth is that infamous “schwa”? You won’t believe it, but is the sound of “nothing”… hehehehe. Yes, don’t you believe me? Take a look how it is pronounced.

Schwa is the scientific name for the sound you listened above. It is derived from the Hebrew word “shewa" that means “a neutral vowel quality; emptiness; nothing."
Why is important to learn to pronounce schwa? Because, in our native language, Portuguese, we pronounce all the syllables in a word, so it’s so weird to us, Brazilians, to see syllables and just say /uh/ like we were dying. It’s so irresistible to say /vegeteibol/ when we see the word “vegetable” or /develóp/ for “develop”. Getting the schwa sound correct is a good way of making your pronunciation more accurate and natural.

You don’t need to be a mathematician to make a simple calculation. If a word has just a stressed vowel, all the others are “schwa” (I’m not including here the words with semi-stressed vowels because they’re a small group in English). It means that the sound of nothing is the most commom sound in English. Can you see now, why is so difficult listening into English? It’s not that they speak fast, they don’t speak, hehehe, I’m kidding, they reduce. The more you reduce, the better is your English.

Take the word “vegetable” for example. On the Portuguese rhythm we would say: /ve-ge-tei-bol/ four different clear sounds. To say it correctly, first of all, we need to know which vowel is stressed. That is not a difficult task. Luckly, English has an almost stable pattern. Every language has a predominant kind of stress. Compare the word “cinema” in three languages and their respective stresses.

(English) CI-ne-ma (proparoxytone rhythm)
(Portuguese) ci-NE-ma (paroxytone rhythm)
(French) ci-ne-MA (oxytone rhythm)

We can, for sure, say that English is a proparoxytone language while Portuguese is a paroxytone language. That’s why, in Portuguese all the proparoxytone words have accent, because they break the predominant rhythm of Portuguese.

So, coming back, now you can easily identify which is the stressed vowel of the word “vegetable”. Oh, don’t confuse, you can not count the last “e”. So the proparoxytone syllable is /ve/. All the others are schwa. The phonemic symbol for this sound is  /ə/. So, the phonetic reperesentation is  /ˈvedʒətəbəl/. Don’t worry with the symbol /dʒ/ if you don’t understand it yet. We’re going to talk about all the phonetic symbols on future posts. 

Any vowel letter can be pronounced as schwa and the pronunciation of a vowel letter can change depending on whether the syllable in which it occurs is stressed or not. Observe:
able /ˈeɪbəl/ .Here the first “a” is pronounced /ei/ because it is the stressed vowel. 

But in the word vegetable the same “a” is pronounced /ə/ because it’s not the stressed vowel anymore. Actually, when able is a sufix it is never stressed, is always a schwa. Isn’t it now clear how to pronounce words such as:


So  all the five English vowel signs, “a,” “e,” “i,” “o” and “u,” can be pronounced as schwas, we don’t especially connect the schwa sound with any of them. Think, for example, of the “a” in “about” (it's not /abaʊ t/  it's /əbaʊ t/) ; the first “e” in “cooperate’; the “i” in “cousin” (it's not /kʌZin/ it’s /kʌzən/; the “o” in “harmony,” and the “u” in “underneath.” All are schwas. So don't speak every syllable you see in English. Reduce them. Put more "schwa" in your life!    

by Vivian Barone

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