De-stressing Words and Schwa

In my last blog, I discussed word stress. What I didn’t discuss is that, just as important as it is to stress a syllable, it is important to also de-stress a syllable. In this blog, I will discuss what it means to stress and de-stress syllables and introduce a sound called schwa.

When it comes to language, stress simply means to give emphasis to a certain syllable. Take the example of banana. We don’t give equal weight to all three syllables. We stress the second syllable to get the word banana. As I stated last time, the general rule is  English verbs are stressed on the second syllable where nouns are stressed on the first syllable. In longer words, we have more than one stressed sound. Take apologetic for example. The main or primary stress is on the fourth syllable. The second syllable is also long and stressed but not as strong so we call this secondary stress. It is not as emphasized but still more so than the other syllables in this word. Simply put, there are two types of stress: primary and secondary. Primary is the stronger emphasis and secondary is a shorter type of stress.

In our two examples above,the other sounds in the word are de-stressed. De-stressing causes a reduction in the sound. This reduction actually reduces the regular sound of the vowel to what is called schwa. In the dictionary it is written as /ə/. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, schwa is defined as:

an unstressed mid-central vowel (as the usual sound of the first and last vowels of the English word America)

The book Clear Speech: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension (3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2005) describes it as “ a reduced…very short, unclear sound” and that it is “the most common vowel sound in English.”

In phonetic script banana would be written as bə’nænə. Imagine yourself yawning. That is the easiest way to describe schwa.It is often difficult for second language speakers to get schwa as it makes no sense to them. In most languages, what you read is what you say. The same can not be said about English. It is a rhythmic language. That is why stress and de-stressed sounds are needed.

If English is your first language, say a longer word and feel where you are not pronouncing the letters as you were taught in school. That is schwa and you have de-stressed the word. For second language speakers, you might be confused as to why first language speakers say certain words different than you. It could be that they are de-stressing syllables. Try using the schwa to see if it now sounds the same. That could be the only difference. Remember it’s not you, English can be a strange language. Learning to de-stress words can not only make the language more comprehensible but actually easier.

Now try these words. Notice how the stressed and de-stressed syllable change depending on the suffix:

present            present

academic

apologetic            apologize

pronunciation        pronounce

imagination            imagine

education            educate

Click this link to hear these words: Destressing Sounds [mp3]

Tunu Sodhi is the English Language Specialist for the Learning and Teaching Office. He can be contacted at tunusodhi@ryerson.ca.

References

Gilbert, Judy B. 2005 Clear Speech: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension. 3rd Edition Cambridge University Press.

“Schwa,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

“Spelling and notation for stress, “Wikipedia.

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