“What a funny thing to say!”, you might be thinking. Of course, the Queen speaks her own English! (In England, we sometimes ironically describe well-spoken English as “the Queen’s English”.) I ask this question not to cast aspersions on our dear queen (long may she reign), but rather to introduce a crucial issue in English pronunciation which will be the focus of this language training article.
After reading this article, you should be in a better position to understand how native English-speakers from all English-speaking countries really speak. This should help you understand spoken English better and also speak better yourself.
The “schwa” sound
English has 5 vowels in its alphabet – a e i o u. However, it is commonly accepted that there are 16 vowel sounds in US English and 20 vowel sounds in British English. You can see their phonetic transcriptions and how they sound in US and British English here:
- The “schwa”
In all native English accents, the schwa sound (written as “ə” ) is used, and more or less in the same way. You may recognise the sound from hearing the word “the”. The schwa (ə) is the most common vowel sound in English everywhere. Click on this sound and listen to it on the pages linked above.
- Word stress
In a word of more than one syllable, one vowel sound carries the main stress. Other vowel sounds are uttered normally or are weakened to a schwa (ə). This means that the schwa sound can be represented in writing as:
-a -e -i -o or -u.
For example, I have underlined the vowel which is sounded as a schwa (ə) in each of these words :
In all of these words, a different vowel to the one I have underlined carries the stress. In “furniture”, there are in fact three vowel sounds : the main stress must be on the first “u” (“furn-“) and the “i” is sounded normally. The second “u” is reduced to a schwa. This is the only way and the correct way to pronounce this vowel sound.
Listen to the word “furniture” on an online dictionary such as Collins which has both British and American audio samples. You should hear that despite other differences in the sound (due to accent), the stressed vowel and the schwa sound is identical in both the US and British forms of English.
The schwa sound can also be represented in writing by two vowels together such as:
-ai, -ou, -io.
For example, I have underlined the vowels which is sounded as a schwa (ə) in these words:
obvious, certain, fashion
If you sound a vowel as it is written when a schwa should be used instead, this will be a mistake. While it is likely that a native speaker would understand you, speaking in this way is not an acceptable, alternative way of speaking, or even a more formal way of speaking: it would simply be wrong. Doing this would not be correct either in the English spoken by the Queen (long may she reign) or by the President of the USA (may he reign wisely until November 2016). Not only would it be wrong, it would also be tiring for native speakers to listen to you for long.
If you speak English only with non-natives as a common second language, then getting the schwa sound right may be less important. However, remember that people will have different challenges when speaking English, according to their native language group, and not everyone will understand non-standard English pronunciation.
- Function words
Often words of one syllable have no schwa because there is only one vowel (e.g. “cat”), and usually there is a stressed vowel in every word. However, some words of only one syllable are normally spoken with a schwa sound in place of the vowel stated in the dictionary definition. This is because these words are grammatically important but not important to the meaning of the sentence. We call these “function” words. These are words like:
a an are were was for to and of some
Below, I have inserted a “ə” in place of the weakened vowel to show how they usually sound in speech:
ə ən əre wəre wəs fər tə ənd əf səme
Look at this sentence : “I’ve got some news for you.”
In this sentence, the vowel sounds in “some” and “for” are both weakened to produce “səme” and “fər”. This helps to give prominence to the key word, “news”.
However, in the sentence below, the vowel sound in the word “some” is stressed because it has become an important word to express contrast :
“Only some of the people in the class received the news in time.” [some, not all of them]
In fact, here, “some” has become the most important word in the sentence. If you only heard that word, you would still have a good chance of understanding the meaning of the whole sentence, from the context.
- Spotting the schwa in practice
Look at this sentence, which was spoken by Queen Elizabeth (long may she reign):
“…we keep up as many of the traditions as we can, that are sensible to keep, like going in carriages.”
The following version of the same sentence shows where the Queen (long may she reign) used the schwa:
“…we keep up əs many əf thə trəditəns əs we can, thət əre sensible tə keep, like going in carriages.”
(This appears at 0:52 to 1:00 of this video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u931xcXliWE)
We now have definitive proof that the Queen (long may she reign) is an inveterate user of the schwa, just like the rest of us mere mortals. There is no escape from the schwa, even when referring to royal carriages.
I have included my transcript of the entire clip at the end of the article.
In an admirable display of transatlantic unity, President Obama can also be heard shamelessly using the ubiquitous schwa in this clip : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi86E5GgawY Listen to 0:44 to 0:54, which I have transcribed below.
“Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the White House correspondents’ dinner. The night when Washington celebrates itself.”
After inserting schwas, the same extract looks like this :
“Good ev’ning, ev’rybody. Welcəme tə thə White House corrəspondənts’ dinnər. The night when Washingtən celəbrates itself.”
Even though President Obama’s dinner had not yet started, you can see that quite a few vowels were already being swallowed.
All native English-speakers utter the schwa sound in the situations I have described. Using the schwa is not lazy or heard only on the mean streets of the Bronx or of Kensington, for example. In reality, the schwa is essential to English pronunciation because word stress is used to communicate meaning clearly and smoothly. This applies equally to Queen Elizabeth, a Texas rancher or a farmer in the Australian outback.
When it comes to the schwa, the accent is not important: in words and sentences, native speakers stress particular vowel sounds and weaken some others to a schwa. We do this in more or less the same way, wherever we come from.
- Further study
There is a lot more to effective pronunciation but hearing and using the schwa sound well is an essential element to good comprehension and speaking. If you have learnt most of your English vocabulary without thinking about the schwa sound (though most people know about “the”, “wanna” and “gonna”!), then you may need to change some pronunciations habits, and this will take time.
If you want to work on this aspect of pronunciation by yourself, here is an exercise which I recommend :
a) find an authentic English audio or video clip which comes with a transcript
b) make sure you can understand at least 60% of the meaning
c) listen several times and write down what you hear
d) read the transcript, and compare it with what you hearde) rewrite the text you have studied, inserting schwas in place of the vowels which were weakened
f) read your new script to yourself several times. If you feel strange when you do this, then you are probably making progress!
Good luck and thanks for reading.
Michael Chambers LLB CELTA
Transcript : The Queen as hostess
0:33 – 1:01
A lot of the visits nowadays have a very strong political tone to them, and we are really the hosts, basically. I mean, we give the entertainment, initially, and have the people to stay, hoping to give them a nice time to remember. And obviously, we keep up as many of the traditions as we can, that are sensible to keep, like going in carriages.
1:33 – 2:05
I think, in a way, it’s quite an old-fashioned idea that you do put out the red carpet for a guest. I mean, I think that people don’t really realise this that – I do tell the guests that we put on our best clothes, and everybody dresses up, and the best china and glass and the gold plate comes out which otherwise doesn’t see the light of day. So it’s very nice to be able to use it and show it.
3:53 – 4:22
If you do put out the best china and glass, it doesn’t necessarily make it overwhelming, if you don’t accept it as overwhelming – because, if people are kind to you, and make you feel at home, I don’t think that the outward and visible signs are really – it’s what goes on inside that really matters.
But sometimes, it is worth explaining, you know, that we put it on, you know, especially, and that we don’t actually live like this all the time.