Un, deux, schwa!

Written by DJ Enki on October 28, 2010

Schwa-t's happening?

I’d like to take a break from self-promotion and music nerdery to talk about something else I’m nerdy about: Words. In particular, I want to talk about that joyful little upside-down lower-case E symbol above: The schwa.

I fear that the kids don’t learn about schwas anymore. Maybe they’ve heard the term and think it refers to that symbol the Nazis used. Maybe they think it’s one of those delightful Yiddish words like “schvitz” or “chutzpah.” At any rate, it doesn’t lend itself to texting shorthand, and there’s no symbol for it on most phones, so if the schwa hasn’t already died an ignoble death, it’s likely being stomped out as we speak.

Such a shame.

After all, we use the schwa all the time without even knowing it. It’s that unstressed, flat vowel sound, usually pronounced “uh” like the first and last syllables of the word “America.” Not the long A sound, not the short A sound, more like an uber-vowel. Or everybody’s favorite onomatopoeic word denoting confusion:

So dumb, he's smart

Butthead: Secret schwa enthusiast

I learned about the schwa in elementary school. As my fellow classmates and I learned all about A-E-I-O-U-and-sometimes-Y, getting suitably confused about Ys (Class: “Is Y a vowel or a consonant?” Teacher: “Yes.”), the teacher threw the schwa into the mix. “Huh?” we said, showing an expert grasp of the schwa sound without even knowing it. “Schwa isn’t in the alphabet. And why is it an upside-down E?”

“Because,” came the response, “that’s how it works.” And we dutifully shrugged and filled in our Dittos. (If you’re wondering what a Ditto is, ask your parents. And get off my lawn!)

But really, the schwa is a necessity borne of the glorious illogic of the English language. If, by contrast, you speak Spanish, or at least taken a class or two on it, you know how simple and straightforward that language is: Letters sound like what they sound like, and with few exceptions, that’s that.

Not so in English.

Letters sound like all kinds of different things, depending on what other letters are around it. Vowels in particular change sounds courtesy of that whole long vowel/short vowel thing alluded to above: The long vowel sound is when the vowel sounds like the letter–like how the letter A is pronounced, well, “A” in the word “laser”–the short sound is the other sound, like the letter A in the word “cat,” except for when the vowel is being all schwa-ish. Oh, and how the first E in the word “eye” is given the long I sound, while the second E makes no sound at all. (And let’s not even get into how “-ough” can sound like “oo,” “oh,” or “uf.”)

Hence the schwa. Without it, pronunciation would become much more logical and predictable, and the English language’s charm is that it doesn’t work like that. English simply has to be weird because, as Omar so artfully said, “Fish gotta swim, know what I’m sayin’?”

Don't confuse Omar with somebody who repeats himself

Yes, I just used a fictional-but-based-on-real-people robber of drug dealers to describe the necessity of an obscure piece of phonetics. That's just how I roll.

So here’s to the schwa. You will live forever in the minds of word nerds like me. And someday, knowledge of you will win me a lot of money on Jeopardy!

2 Comments to “Un, deux, schwa!”

  1. The Fraudulent Linguist/The Linguistic(s) Fraud | The log of a closet (obliged) linguist Says:

    […] the IPA to memory and not being able to write it properly (I still do it mirror-imaged). But this involving (Beavis &) Butthead may have won me over. ** I rejected language — literally […]

  2. bevreally Says:

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