The Music of English – Unstressed syllables and schwa

Episode 1 of The Music of English introduces the importance of “stress” in English pronunciation. We create syllable and word stress by saying them higher, louder and longer. Episode 2 looks at syllables that are lower, softer and faster: the unstressed syllables.

For speakers of English as a Second Language who have depended on “book-learning,” the difference between what written words look like on the page and what they actually sound like when anglophones speak can be really confusing. One big reason is that we often replace vowels with a tiny, quiet, lazy grunt called “schwa.” It’s not even a letter in the English alphabet. It’s just a sound we make to mumble unstressed syllables. To “mumble” means to speak softly and indistinctly, with the mouth almost closed. It’s kind of crazy that this boring little sound can replace so many written vowels and pop up out of nowhere between consonants that are side by side. But in order to learn how to do it and where to use it, you have to train your ear to hear it.

I choose five words that appear early on in Episode 2 to illustrate: “syllable,” followed by “secret” (“…secret device called schwa”), “supply” (“… an endless supply of this lazy little grunt”), “common” (“It’s the most common vowel sound …), and “rhythm” (“… the music of English is its variety of pitch, volume and rhythm.”). The episode ends with my listening suggestion, the song “Wavin’ Flag” []. It’s full of examples of schwa. So you know what to listen for, I identify every schwa in the lyrics of the song. Just click on the link. [Wavin’ Flag lyrics – Young Artists for Haiti]

As you read along, you’ll be able to see and hear just how often we use this secret device.

You can also practise by listening to Episode 2 again, without watching, while reading along with the transcript [Episode 2-Unstressed syllables-schwa]. Although I only choose five words that contain the schwa sound, the episode actually has lots of other examples. Can you find some? Let me know.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.



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