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

Sep 16, 2018 | Blog, Blog UK

Georgie Taylor

Speech Pathologist

Many people find using the International Phonetic Alphabet helpful.  In fact, it is an extremely helpful tool that will help you improve your English pronunciation and help you neutralize your accent and improve your English accent.

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 1st syllable. Native speakers don’t pronounce the ‘o’ vowel  in the 1st 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. For example, the word ‘computer’ has a ‘schwa’ in the 1st syllable. Native speakers don’t pronounce the ‘o’ vowel  in the 1st 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’.

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 /ˈfæm.li/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

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.

Hope that helps.

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 Star Pronunciation course.

We look forward to working with you.

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