Introduction to the limericks exercises

Stressed Syllables and the Schwa Sound


Stressed Syllables

The important words and syllables in a sentence are said with extra energy in English.

This is called stress or the tonic accent.

In the following sentence the stressed syllables are written in bold letters.

The woman went to the station and waited until the train arrived.

 (There are other possibilities for which syllables are stressed or not – they change the meaning of the sentence a little.)


The Schwa Sound

This is the most frequent vowel sound in English.

It’s the sound in most unstressed syllables.
Here is the phonemic symbol for the schwa: ə.

The schwa is what remains when you remove almost all the energy from a vowel.

It’s the sound “you don’t hear”. It’s also called the “neutral e”.

Many “grammar” words have two pronunciations:

  1. One strong, stressed full vowel sound, used to emphasise the word.
  2. The other, unstressed, schwa sound.
    This second sound is by far the most common in natural speech.

The schwa sound can be written with many different letters.
In the following sentence all the coloured letters are examples of the schwa sound.

The woman went to the station and waited until the train arrived.

The alternation of stressed syllables and the schwa sound gives the typical rhythm of English.

Thə womən went tə thə statən ənd waitəd əntil thə train ərrived.

ðə ˈwʊmən ˈwɛnt  ðə ˈsteɪʃən ən ˈweɪtəd ənˈtɪl ðə ˈtreɪn əˈraɪvd. 

Limericks illustrate this pattern particularly well.

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