In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) what does /ə/ mean?

Sep 16, 2018 | Blog, Blog UK

Well done for looking at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in your dictionary to help with the pronunciation of English words. 

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

I am going to explain exactly what the symbol /ə/ is in the IPA AND I’ll also tell you the most important things that you need to know about it.  

What is /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)? The symbol /ə/ (an upside down ‘e’) in the IPA is used to represent an important English vowel sound. /ə/ is a weak vowel in English that is pronounced as a relaxed and short ‘uh’. /ə/ is the most common vowel in English and is called ‘schwa’. 

Many people find using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) helpful. 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.

You can revise the IPA and listen to all the sounds in English here. 

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. 

Sign up to our free short online English pronunciation course today to start improving your word stress. 

Here are the answers to some questions I am often asked about  /ə/ and the IPA.

1) What does /ə/ mean? Why is it sometimes written in superscript in the IPA?

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.

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.

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’.

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. 

In some words schwa is written in small text (superscript). You can see an example of that here:

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 /ˈfæ 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 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.

We look forward to working with you.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) what does /ə/ mean?


Georgie Harding has assisted thousands of people from all over the world with improving their clarity and spoken English skills. A Speech Pathology degree and 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.

She is a regular presenter at Universities and absolutely loves helping people move forward with better spoken English and more confidence.

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