What does the /ə/ symbol mean?

What is the symbol /ə/ in my dictionary? 

 

I am going to explain what /ə/ is AND explain the most important things you need to know about it.

What is /ə/ in the dictionary? The symbol /ə/ (an upside down ‘e’) is used in the dictionary to show the most common weak vowel in English, which is pronounced as a relaxed ‘uh’. /ə/ is called ‘schwa’. 

So you probably saw the symbol /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in your dictionary.

/ə/ is one of the symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a set of symbols used to show exactly how to pronounce a word. Each sound in English is represented by a symbol. I recommend you revise the IPA and listen to all the sounds in English here.

So, why do we need the IPA?

As you know, English is not phonetic, so the spelling of a word doesn’t always help us with the pronunciation. Words can look very different to the way they are pronounced in English. You also can’t tell by looking at word, where the word stress is.

Because English is not-phonetic, learners of English find using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) very helpful.

The IPA tells us the exact pronunciation of a word. It tells us the exact sounds in a word and also where the stressed syllable is.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) can be a little overwhelming at first but it’s a very important tool for learning English pronunciation.

And when it comes to pronunciation, the IPA is an extremely helpful tool for learning and improving your English pronunciation.

Learning the IPA symbols – or even just that most important aspects will help you improve your English pronunciation and help you improve your English accent.


So here is a summary of answers to some questions I am often asked about  /ə/ and the IPA.

What does /ə/ mean? The symbol /ə/ is a special vowel in English. It is the symbol used to write the most common vowel in English –it is a weak vowel that is pronounced as ‘uh’. You can hear schwa pronounced and record your pronunciation here.

What is this vowel called? This vowel is so important in English that it has its own name. It is called ‘schwa’. Schwa is a weak vowel used in many unstressed syllables in English.

What are some examples of schwa? For example, the word ‘computer’ has a ‘schwa’ in the first syllable. Native speakers don’t pronounce the ‘o’ vowel  in the first syllable, we make that vowel weak – it becomes a very weak ‘uh’ … kuhmPUter.

Another good example is the word ‘today’. Native speakers don’t pronounce the first vowel as ‘o’, we use the weak vowel schwa so it sounds more like ‘tuhday’.

Find out more about the mysterious upside down e – the schwa symbol in English with our Schwa Exercises page. 

This page has video and audio on schwa and you will practice improving your use of schwa. 

Practise Improving Your Schwa With Videos, Exercises & Activities

 

Schwa Sound English Dictionary

How Does Schwa Look In The Dictionary?

Let’s look at some examples of schwa in words in the dictionary /ə/. Schwa is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in many English dictionaries using this symbol: /ə/ – an upside down ‘e’. 

See the schwa example below of how schwa is written in the Cambridge Online Dictionary.

Schwa Sound In The English Dictionary

This image shows the schwa symbol written in the word ‘confirm’ in the Cambridge Online Dictionary.

The Cambridge Online Dictionary is free to use and very helpful because you can click to hear the word pronounced in both British English and American English. It clearly shows the English schwa sound.

We recommend you use a dictionary such as the Cambridge Online Dictionary, as it will give you more accurate information about schwa.

I have seen many students using dictionaries with incorrect IPA transcriptions. Many of these have incorrect word stress too, even dictionary.com has some incorrect word stresses! So, check you are using a reliable and correct English dictionary.

See ‘Confirm’ in the Google Pronunciation Tool

Schwa Sound & Google Pronunciation Tool

This image shows the pronunciation for the word ‘confirm’ with the Google Pronunciation Tool.

The stressed syllable is in bold.

This tool does not use the schwa symbol /ə/ because it does not show the IPA.

Instead of /ə/ it’s written as ‘uh’.

This suits many people because most people do not know IPA symbols such as /ə/.

Why Is Schwa Sometimes Raised In The IPA In The Dictionary

You may have noticed that schwa is sometimes raised when written in the dictionary in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

What does this mean? When the /ə/ symbol is raised, in superscript, it just means that the schwa is so weak that it’s often omitted by speakers.

Is it important? Not really. They are very, very similar – almost the same thing really. The sound schwa is so weak anyway that it always sounds like it is almost or fully omitted. Keep things simple and treat all schwa sounds the same, which is as very weak.

See a schwa sounds examples of the schwa symbol being written in the higher text, superscript in the IPA below.

You can learn more about weak vowels and how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to help your English pronunciation and English accent with a Speech Active course.

When schwa is written in superscript it is very, very weak and some speakers will even omit it. So some non-native speakers will pronounce ‘family’ more like ‘fam.lee’ or /ˈfæm.li/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Listen and see the IPA of family here.

2) What is the meaning of the /./ in the IPA? The dot just shows where the syllables can be split. Just ignore this. It shouldn’t affect your pronunciation – it is just a marker of syllables.

You can master schwa and the stress and rhythm of English with a Speech Active Course. Our courses are tailored for speakers of your first language.

Find our course for speakers of your first language here: English Pronunciation Course List.

 

Other pages you will find helpful:

Improve your Word stress: English Word Stress Exercises.

Improve your Schwa Sound

Revise IPA For English Vowel Sounds

Revise IPA For English Consonant Sounds

Checklist For Choosing Accent Reduction Training.

 

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What does the /ə/ symbol mean?

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Georgie Harding has assisted thousands of people from all over the world with improving their clarity and spoken English skills. A Speech Pathology degree (BAppSc(SpPathand CELTA qualifications and over 15 years of experience providing 1:1, group and online training make Georgie a leader in her field.  

Georgie is the creator the world’s leading English Pronunciation online courses that are tailored to the language background of the student and presents regularly at Universities.

If you’ve ever met Georgie or completed her award winning courses you’ll know how passionate she is about helping people move forward with better spoken English and more confidence. 

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