Season 4: Episode 3: Schwa

Season 4: Episode 3: Schwa

In episode 3 Lindsay and Shaun are joined by Sinead Laffan to discuss how we approach the teaching of the Schwa. We explore everything from how it is dealt with in class, how it got its name and some of our favourite ideas for teaching it. Lindsay and Shaun also try and guess why Sinead has taken her love of the sound to a level most teacher’s wouldn’t go to.

We talk about many aspects of the schwa including:

So what is the schwa?
What is the technical definition of it, like the phonological one?
And what does that mean?
What other language use a lot of schwas?

Here are some fun facts:

The word “schwa” comes from Hebrew.

In Hebrew writing, “shva” is a vowel diacritic that can be written under letters to indicate an ‘eh’ sound (which is not the same as our schwa). The term was first used in linguistics by 19th century Germany philologists, which is why we use the German spelling, “schwa

The ǝ symbol was invented to show how people really talked.

The upside down e was first used as a symbol for the schwa sound by Johann Schmeller in his 1821 grammar of Bavarian German. Because he was describing the specific properties of a particular dialect, he needed a way to represent actual pronunciation.

Before people started calling it “schwa” in English (around 1895) it had a lot of nicknames.

It’s been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel

English has a tendency to delete a syllable with a schwa.

What happened to the third syllable in the following words? Caramel (car-mel), separate (sep-rate), different (dif-rent), chocolate (choc-late), camera (cam-ra). They fell victim to a terrible disease called schwa syncope (or schwa deletion). Actually, it’s not so terrible, and it happens in lots of languages. A schwa syllable following the syllable that bears the main stress says, “well I’m not really needed here anyway” and skips town.

But English sometimes has a tendency to stick in extra schwa syllables.

In some dialects a schwa shows up to help bust up difficult consonant clusters. This process, called schwa epenthesis, can turn realtor into real-ǝ-tor, athlete into ath-ǝ-lete, nuclear into nuc-yǝ-ler, and film into fi-lǝm. It can also come in handy in drawing out words for dramatic effect, as in “cǝ-raaaaaa-zy!”

Some interesting websites:

End of Pod activity

As your commute is coming to an end, here are some ideas you can use when next teaching your students about the schwa.

Dictation is an activity that helps highlight students to the schwa in context. Before class prepare some sentences for the class, these could be made up or ones from your course material. In class dictate your sentences at your normal speaking speed. Tell students to write what they hear even if they don’t hear everything. Dictate the sentences then ask students to compare together before asking them for the sentences which you then write on the board. Once the students have given you the correct sentences ask them to work together to identify which parts are stressed and which parts use the schwa.

A variation of this is to dictate the sentences but rather than getting the students to write what they hear, they are encouraged to count how many words they hear.