What makes schwa so special? On my phonology exam my tutor phrased the question something like: Why is schwa the ruler/king of vowels? I don't know what he meant by this but I suppose it's got something to do with the fact that all vowels tend to reduce to schwa before they disappear... What are your thoughts on this? How would you answer this question?

  • 3
    I'd suppose that schwa is the basic vowel. Vowels are perceived in contrast to each other, arguably schwa in the middle of the diagramm, lacking any kind of modulation except for the vocal chords, may be the base truth for such contrast. You can get even less modulation from a voiceless breathing all the same, so I don't think it's correct to call schwa the mother of all vowels, semivowel onsets and offsets, glides and what not, but that's besides the point. If the question refered to specific material from the course, and if you missed it, we cannot help you.
    – vectory
    Feb 3, 2019 at 17:47

3 Answers 3


This is a framework-dependent question. My guess is that he is referring to the representation of schwa, and the premise that it is "featureally empty". That is, front vowels have a frontness property, back vowels have a backness property, and round vowels have a rounding property. Schwa has none of these. That brings us down to the central unrounded vowels [ɨ ə ɐ] (and some other ancillary letters). The proper treatment of vowel height has been inconclusive, but it seems clear that the first cut is between high and non-high, and the low central vowel can be excluded as having an additional lowering feature. There is a line of reasoning that mid vowels are "more marked" than high vowels which would suggest that really [ɨ] is that special vowel that has no features at all. A typical caveat about "schwa" is that, many times, people use the letter "ə" when the vowel in question is in fact closer to [ɨ]. The claim that strict IPA [ə] is structurally special is untenable, on formal phonological grounds.

One phonetic story is that the formants of the vowel schwa are closest to those predicted for a uniform tube, with no constrictions. A second one is that it is extremely short (though there is a chicken-egg question here whether we call a vowel schwa because it is extremely short, or does being extremely short yield the formant quality associated with schwa?). In English for example it has less than half the duration of stressed [ʌ], and in a number of Austronesian languages (with no length contrast) it is also very short. There are certainly schwa-like vowels that are not highly reduced, what is not clear is whether by professional IPA standards those vowels are [ə] or [ɜ ɘ ɤ ə̹]. You can compare Ladefoged's performance of [ʌ] with his [ə], [ɜ] and [ɘ], and then match those standards against supposed schwa in some other language. I don't know of any IPA doctrine that says that "ə" can only be used for extremely short vowels, but it is a widely reported property attributed to "schwa", presumably based on ignorance of languages where a schwa-like vowel is of equal prominence to other vowels of the language. In the case of non-rhotic pronunciations of "bird", it is generally held by phoneticians that this is [bɜːd], not [bəːd]. I don't have a candidate for long schwa where the quality is IPA [ə] as performed by Ladefoged and others.

The claim that schwa is the king of vowels is a cute metaphor for something, good luck figuring out what. I would say that it is the meekest vowel, if I were inclined to talk that way.

  • 1
    Show me a king of vowels and I'll show you an emperor with no clothes on :) Feb 3, 2019 at 17:43
  • 1
    Ironically, the claim was that schwa were not special at all ;)
    – vectory
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:12
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    @vectory It's like Bellos' joke that "247 is fascinating because it's the first completely uninteresting number".
    – abarnert
    Feb 3, 2019 at 21:32
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    @vectory Umlaut in die Männer isn't due to the definite article, but to the case ending.
    – TKR
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:07
  • 3
    @vectory Man and men aren't homophones.
    – TKR
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:17

When I pronounce this vowel, I would say it is the only one where there is absolutely no contraction of any muscle (except vibrating vocal chords) or any change in the mouth/throat/larynx/pharynx, and the tongue is simply relaxed. I just open the mouth and it's the sound that comes naturally.

So I suppose it is justified that it has the central place in the IPA diagram.

enter image description here

This central place corresponds to the vowel with the least alteration, the softest, the most relaxed: it is the most lenient vowel.

  • 4
    This should be the accepted answer. Schwa is the most lenient vowel, and is present arguably in every language, phonemically if not phonologically. It does not have to be short, as @user6762 states; long schwa is still a schwa. Feb 3, 2019 at 17:40
  • @kkm the answer did without your comment not explain why schwa ruled or sired other vowels.
    – vectory
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:15
  • @kkm thx for the precision. I have edited and added your information in the answer. Feb 3, 2019 at 19:29
  • If schwa is basically special because it's the grunt we make when the mouth is open, is there a consonant that is special because it's the grunt we make when the mouth is closed?
    – user12663
    Feb 4, 2019 at 23:01
  • @BenCrowell hmmmmmmm I don't know ;-) Could it be m with voicing? or h when only breathing out ? Feb 5, 2019 at 1:02

It depends if you're talking about phonology or phonetics.

In articulatory phonetics, "schwa" is often used as the name for the completely relaxed vowel with no particular constriction in the vocal tract. (Whether this actually corresponds to [ə] on the IPA chart is up for debate: the IPA vowel chart predates spectrograms, so it's defined in terms of "what things sound like" rather than formant frequencies we can measure.)

In this case, it's special in that it's the center point that you define all vowels in relation to. /a/ has a lower first formant, while /e/ has a higher second formant, etc.

In phonology, "schwa" is generally used as the name for a reduced vowel of any sort. The name itself comes from the Hebrew marking for an "extra-short" vowel (comparable to Slavic ь and ъ). So the idea that all vowels reduce to a schwa is kind of a tautology. When a mid central vowel isn't just something else reduced, the phonologists tend to give it another name: that's why "butt" is transcribed with /ʌ/ in most English traditions, even though the vowel is not particularly low or back: because it's not a reduction, and therefore can't be "schwa".

  • Is completely relaxed really accurate? If I breath completely relaxed, I'm not voicing at all. Panting may involve voice, but that might be a voluntary speech act.
    – vectory
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:19
  • I used to disparage the English ə/ʌ transcriptional difference but captured tokens of both and manipulated durations and amplitude so that they were equivalent, yet the qualities remain distinct. That persuaded me that the qualities are different. Are you saying (perhaps in your dialect) that the only difference is duration and/or amplitude?
    – user6726
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:21
  • @user6726 Out of curiosity, what dialect were your tokens? My impression is that on the West Coast at least, the STRUT vowel tends to have some rounding, unlike schwa.
    – TKR
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:52
  • Seattle. I don't seem to have the tokens anywhere findable, but I'll see if I can recreate them.
    – user6726
    Feb 3, 2019 at 19:51
  • @user6726 May I ask the qualities remain distinct how? F1 is higher in STRUT, I assume?
    – Nardog
    Feb 3, 2019 at 22:01

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