ə?

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Nov 18, 2010 09:39 pronunciation
Today, this is just my complaints about English pronunciation system and related issues. Not funny, sorry.

Before I came to the UK and had a lesson from a native English speaker, I had never heard of a vowel sound called 'schwa', which is represented with the symbol 'ə' in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) systems. Few native English speaker knows the strange word 'schwa' /ʃwɑː/, which doesn't include any schwa sound in it. However, schwa is the most frequently appeared sounds in English. Why schools in Japan didn't tell me about the sound? I can't understand.

Basically, I thought that it is a very shortly pronounced 'a'. For example, the word 'about' contains a schwa and its pronunciation is described as /əˈbaʊt/ in dictionary.

Then, I found another use of 'ə' in many words, like 'close' /kləʊs/. Well, I learned it like 'cloːs' in Japan, but my English teacher here said it's totally wrong. It's more like 'clous'. Then I thought, "Wait, 'close' /kləʊs/ includes the sound 'ə' according to dictionary. OK, then she meant that it should be like 'claus'." Thus, I re-learned pronunciation of many words including this sounds 'əʊ'.

Then, today, the same teacher pointed out my 'claus' for the word 'close' is totally wrong again. She said that it's more like 'clous'. Hold on, but the word definitely includes a schwa sound. I was really confused and frustrated at this moment.

I looked up words containing 'əʊ' sounds again and found that they include 'go', 'no' and 'so'. Oh, they are apparently not 'gau', 'nau',and 'sau' but 'gou', 'nou', and 'sou'. It seems likely that, when 'ə' is followed by 'ʊ', 'ə' is pronounced like 'o', not 'a'. Very confusing.


Finally, I end up with this information. According to Wikipedia;

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables, especially if syllabic consonants are not used:

* like the 'a' in about [əˈbaʊt]
* like the 'e' in taken [ˈteɪkən]
* like the 'i' in pencil [ˈpɛnsəl]
* like the 'o' in eloquent [ˈɛləkwənt]
* like the 'u' in supply [səˈplaɪ]
* like the 'y' in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]

This means that 'ə' can be pronounced in various ways depending on the spelling which a 'ə' corresponds to. What a confusing system! Why can International Phonetic Association use the same symbol for the different sounds? What's the point of using 'ə' symbol then?