Word of the day: schwa

My relatives and friends joke that so often I find myself talking to strangers. But I’m a friendly guy and frequently I find that such conversations teach me something. So it proved today.

I was in central London to attend a meeting and had some lunch at a branch of “Pret a manger”. It was busy and there were no free tables, so I joined a table where a young woman was already sitting and we fell into conversation.

She was from Moldova but spoke excellent English. I asked her if she had found it difficult to learn English and she said that it had been easy “except for the schwa”.

I had no idea what she was talking about and thought that maybe I had misheard her. In response to my confusion, she repeated the word: “schwa”.

I had to confess that I was none the wiser. This was strange: a foreigner using an English word that I did not comprehend.

To resolve my bewilderment, she used her connected iPad to Google the word and show me the definition. It was not an easy concept for me to grasp immediately because it refers to a manner of speaking which for me is second nature and has never occasioned thought.

As I understand it, the schwa is a phonetic term which refers to the use of unaccented vowels, letters or syllables. Apparently it is the most common sound in English. You can find a short and simple explanation here.

Thank you, Monika, for educating me about my own language.


  • Janet

    Wow! I didn’t know that either, and like you I just use it without thinking. lack of it is probably why non native speakers often sound foreign even when words are used correctly. Thank you, Roger and Monika.

  • Dave Hill

    That’s amazing! I’ve always been aware of the unstressed vowel sound but have lived for 56 years completely ignorant of the fact that there was a word to describe it. Thank you Roger, Monika & Janet. You all have one in your name.

  • Roger Darlington

    The things you learn on NightHawk!

  • Albert

    Thanks Roger and Monica for the clarification on this strange word with even stranger sound it represents.English being my 2nd (hence acquired) language,I often wondered why common words like ‘fahter’ ‘mother’ ‘brother’ were in fact pronounced by native English speakers as almost ‘fatha’ ‘motha’ ‘brotha’ respectively, with the consonant ‘r’ being almost silent. I used to (what appeared then to be a logical question)ask why words like ‘Plumber’ ‘Tailor’ are actually pronounce as ‘Plumma’ ‘taila’ so on. I have a copy of the ” The Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary”(yes I’ve spelt it exactly as is the title!) on a CD which helps me to learn how to say such common words correctly with the ‘Schwa’ sound.Interestingly though the two different words ‘Prounciation’ and “pronunciation’ sound very similar to a listener. I understand (after reading on this word ‘Schwa’ on wikipedia-there is a long discourse on it)that this kind of sound or rather absence of/almost absent sound is not unique to English language! I learn that it is fairly common to many ‘Indo-Germanic’ languages. Yes we learn something every day if only we are willing to do so.

  • Maria-Jose

    Hello! In Chile, “schwa!” is an interjection used to express surprise, which is almost obsolete


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