2907: Schwa

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Doug's cousin, the one from London, runs a Bumble love cult.
Title text: Doug's cousin, the one from London, runs a Bumble love cult.


English features a lot of vowel reduction, where vowels in unstressed syllables often become a short 'uh'-like sound called a schwa (ə). As Randall notes, this makes it by far the most common sound in English, and Randall makes the observational joke that one can learn the English language without learning any other vowel sounds, if one sticks to the right topics of conversation. He gives conversational examples which demonstrate exactly that, using words that contain only the schwa vowel -- accurate for dialects with the ꜱᴛʀᴜᴛ-coᴍᴍᴀ merger, but not for those without it, like Standard Southern English English, Australian English, and the Mid-Atlantic accent. This is an example of reverse lipogram in speech, where each word has a particular sound in the speech.

The humor lies in the unusal and impractical elements of this tip:

  • It's impractical, since limiting oneself to only words with schwa will exclude using many common words (like "no") and make for stilted speech (using "Nuh uh" every time instead).
  • It's highly unusual for hyper-efficient language learning to focus on all words with a common vowel sound rather than, say, the 1,000 most common words. English learners learn between 14 and 20 vowel sounds - depending on the dialect - which are written with just six vowel letters (AEIOU and sometimes Y). For example, the 'a' in "cat" may not be the same 'a' in "father", depending on dialect.

Randall has had a longstanding interest in minimalist visions of English communication. He published a whole book, Thing Explainer, about explaining complex ideas — such as the Up-Goer 5 — using “only the ten hundred words people use the most often.”

The intended pronunciation of the conversation can be written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (while preserving punctuation marks) as:

Megan: /wəts əp? wəz dəɡ ˈɡənə kəm? dəɡ ləvz brənt͡ʃ./
Ponytail: /ˈnəʔə, dəɡz stək kəz əv ə ˈtən(ə)l əbˈstrəkʃ(ə)n. ə trək dəmpt ə tən əv ˈənj(ə)nz./
Megan: /əx./

The title text, in IPA, if only schwas were used:

/dəgz ˈkəz(ə)n, ðə wən frəm ˈlənd(ə)n, rənz ə ˈbəmb(ə)l ləv kəlt./


[Megan, Cueball, and Ponytail stand in front of a dinner table, with Megan and Cueball facing Ponytail. Megan has her hand on the rightmost chair while Ponytail has her palm out.]
Megan: What's up? Was Doug gonna come? Doug loves brunch.
Ponytail: Nuh uh, Doug's stuck 'cause of a tunnel obstruction. A truck dumped a ton of onions.
Megan: Ugh.
[Caption below the panel:]
The schwa is the most common vowel sound in English. In fact, if you stick to the right conversation topics, you can avoid learning any other ones.

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In what crazy dialect do these all use the same 1 vowel? 22:10, 15 March 2024 (UTC)

I can think of several. I was immediately reminded of Lucy Porter's Hull accent (some examples, including videos/audio, here), but I can also think of New Zealand (more 'i'ish vowels, at least stereotypically), South African (down a couple of tones from that), and a number of state-side accents that conceivably are what Randall's drawing upon. [...as ninjaed, below, by at 22:30]
My own accent (when given its full reign) actually tends to be consonant-light ("o'er" for "over", such that my vowels tend to be two or three separate tones in a row), so it doesn't work so well. But if I shift my focus to try to impersonate people from ten miles to the north (or a dozen or so miles east) from where I grew up then I can actually get quite close to 'perfect monovowelism' (still suppressing the consonants!). 22:32, 15 March 2024 (UTC)
All of them? I had to read the explanation to get what constitutes a schwa, but then I read the comic again, and yeah, they're all roughly the same sound, in the average North American accent anyway. Only exception is the word "A", which people might often pronounce like the letter "A", which of course isn't a schwa, :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:57, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
'Round these 'ere parts, you'd never say "A"-to-rhyme-with-"Hay" (except to stress "that isn't just a(y) good song but the(e) best song ever!", e.g.). Still confused, me, though when at my first ever French class at school, the teacher (with not far off the local accent) told us that 'un' and 'une' were "the words for 'uh'...". Which only became clear when she clarified "...like 'uh book', 'uh table', 'uh window'...". This was actually how we all spoke. (More or less... Ah din't spake quart ser m'tch lahk dat, wot wi' mi mam'n'dad bofe bin frum a cupla tarns ovver, f'witch ah gut uh rep f'beyin "posch". Ur mebbe 'twuz cuz mi mam whir uh titch'r, ser ah gut lurnt t' spake proppah?) 17:23, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
In my experience, A-as-hay is PRIMARILY used for emphasis like that, but it does pop up in normal use too. I'd say outside of emphasis it might be 70/30%? For example, my natural instinct and inclination would lead me to usually do so here for "A truck" (dunno why, maybe since it's the first word in the sentence?). This is entirely instinct, I can't think of what the underlying reasons are, but I AM sure I have a subconscious set of rules for it. Problem with it being my mother tongue, I grew up with the language, so there are things I know that I don't KNOW I know. :) (Like, I once saw someone declare how adjectives have an order, and native speakers just KNOW it. "Big red truck" is right but "Red big truck" sounds wrong, he declared like 15 kinds of adjectives and their order, it was weird how right it was). NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:37, 23 March 2024 (UTC)
Can't find a fifteen-adjective version, easily, but a typical list-order given might be "quantity, opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose and qualifier". And when you break a 'natural' sequence, there's usually a reason. "A disgusting old green mouldy slice of bread" might have been full discussed as "that old slice of bread is a mouldy disgusting green old slice of bread", for rhetorical emphasis via epistrophe/anadiplosis/whatever.
Also, "(a) slice of" could seriously be considered 'quantity', and sent to the beginning to start the whole thing off, rather than here clearly(?) being used as a qualifier (or maybe 'origin'!). Or just taken as part of the dominant noun-phrase "slice of bread", rather than stacking up in the maybe-adjectival usage. "A green mouldy old slice of disgusting bread" conveys other implications to the description (the bread was already considered disgusting, even before it was sliced and then allowed to gain the rest of its problems, perhaps).
Thinking about further permutations "...green old mouldy..." seems harder to find a good reason for. The "...old mouldy..." maybe just hits the wrong tone of rhyme-and-rhythm, however used. Maybe invoke it though? "First bold soldier-man, / Then old mouldy man, / Now all colder than, / ...the grave." (Not exactly Poet Laureate material, I grant you, just a snap example.)
But, like many things, I'm with you on the "it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it" camp. Always interesting to ponder, though. 18:00, 23 March 2024 (UTC)

Personally I pronounce those pretty much all the same (I live in Boston like Randall but don't have an actual Boston accent) -- 22:30, 15 March 2024 (UTC)

I too, living in the Pacific Northwest of the US, immediately saw all the vowels the same. RandalSchwartz (talk) 00:43, 18 March 2024 (UTC)

I didn't think it was considered schwa when stressed as in "up" and "love". But my dictionary has a schwa in its pronunciation guide for both, so I guess I was wrong. But this basically means the usual "short U" pronunciation is schwa. Barmar (talk) 22:59, 15 March 2024 (UTC)

Some dialects split the vowel at the end of "comma" from the vowel in "strut," but most North American dialects don't. So in pronouncing dictionaries, you will sometimes see the strut vowel written ʌ and the comma vowel written ə even though they might be exactly the same in your accent. In vowels that split comma and strut, schwa is rarely stressed, but that's not a rule. This is sometimes confused by American teachers, who try to explain why they see two different symbols for the same sound. But they really are different sounds, and Americans just don't use /ʌ/ at all. EebstertheGreat (talk) 02:50, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
Plus, this "schwa is never stressed" mnemonic doesn't even make perfect predictions for dialects without the merger. I've heard that in undone /ʌnˈdʌn/, the unstressed vowel doesn't go to schwa. In the end, the IPA wasn't created just for English, and it only defines [ə] as a mid central vowel, not an unstressed one. Reduced vowels may often mid-centralize, but nothing says a language can't stress mid central vowels at other times, just like any other vowel quality can be stressed or unstressed. ~AgentMuffin 21:53, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
As in science in general, there is no "true" description of language, but only models that are more or less useful. Conceptualizing the STRUT vowel as /ʌ/ or as stressed schwa are two possible models. The latter is more popular in writing about US English, and maybe less obvious in some other Englishes. But in the end, in the context of this cartoon, it's self-defeating (if we are being pedantic, which should be allowed in the xkcd universe), because even if we're categorizing them as the stressed and unstressed versions of the same vowel, they're sufficiently different that non-native speakers will still have to learn how to pronounce both of them, especially if their native language doesn't have word stress. [Quinn C, linguist] 16:28, 21 March 2024 (UTC)

This all works in a generically american accent, except for the i vowel in onion, which cannot be schwa-ified in any english accent I've ever heard. [[Special:Contributions/|]] 23:27, 15 March 2024 (UTC)

Depends. Wiktionary says /ˈʌn.jən/ (any particular places?) or /ˈʌŋ.jɪn/ (Canada) (and an obsolete version that I'd imagine the Kiwis to use).
If the /j/ isn't considered a vowel then you could definitely justify something like "un-yun" or "ern-yern" or even "in-yin" (amongst various other like-vowel versions)...
If you do the /j*n/ more as in /ˈi.ɑn/, /ˈeɪ.ɑn/, /ˈiː.ən/, /ˈiː.ɒn/ or /ˈeɪ.ɒn/ then clearly you can't switch to "uhn-uh-uhn" quite so easily. 23:52, 15 March 2024 (UTC)
It says every vowel SOUND, which is different than "how each vowel sounds". The sound of that I is a Y. The O following it indeed uses the schwa. :) That's my guess, anyway, I don't know these pronunciation things that deeply. NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:57, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
This dipthong has a consonant in it. What is going on? 12:15, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
"except for the i vowel in onion" IMHO, there is no 'i' in onion. UN-YUN. The Y acts more of a consonant. -Me (born of a Missouri mom and a Connecticut father, babbled in Colorado, schooled in Calif then New Jersey within hearing of South Philly, yo!) PRR (talk) 20:18, 16 March 2024 (UTC)
Personally, I'd call onion a two-and-a-half syllable word. I've internalized the concept of half syllables ever since my Korean friend Hyun taught me how to properly pronounce her name. 18:54, 18 March 2024 (UTC)

I can't read the words "love cult" without thinking of DHMIS 3. Trogdor147 (talk) 00:10, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

The /j/ sound commonly found in "onion" is not generally considered a vowel. As a test, try to put it between two consonants to make a complete syllable: first try to say /np/, and notice you have to add a schwa (neutral vowel), /nəp/; then try to say /nyp/, and you'll add that same extra vowel, /nyəp/. It's sometimes called a "semivowel", because it has some properties of a vowel and some of a consonant; or sometimes a "glide", because of the way it sets at the edge a syllable. - IMSoP (talk) 16:01, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

If someone actually read this conversation to me using only schwa, I don't think I'd understand it. I usually consider myself a fluent English speaker, but my native language - Polish - doesm't have this vovel at all. 07:16, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

Yeah, I think for us non-native speakers this is quite hard to replicate. I had to read the sentences out loud several times before I heard it. The standard British English I learned at school 35 years ago tends to have less Schwas in it, I guess. In German we do have some Schwas, mainly towards the end of words, but I don't think it is possible to construct whole sentence without any other vowels. -- 07:56, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

I’m american (boston area) but some of these vowels do sound different from others to me, although it still seems it would be clear and ok if they’re all said the same. 12:15, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

Randall seems to have terminally confused the schwa [ǝ] with [ʌ] as in "cup". I've never seen such an incorrect xkcd. In the UK, the Manchester accent almost universally consists of [ǝ] and even they wouldn't be able to use [ǝ] for "onion" 13:04, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

The explanation mentioned the strut–comma merger well before this comment. There's no need to jump to calling other dialects "incorrect". ~AgentMuffin 21:53, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

Maybe a better symbol could be used than an apostrophe in the explanation? It's difficult to read/spot, and the quote is surrounded in quotation marks, which makes it a little confusing. I'm not sure what though. --Mushrooms (talk) 15:24, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

Maybe an underscore? “D_gs c_s(_)n, th_ _n fr_m L_nd_n, r_ns _ B_mbl l_v c_lt.” - 16:01, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

It's a shame Schwa isn't pronounced with a schwa. Kev (talk) 16:47, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

Apparently it was pronounced 'shuwa' at some point, with a schwa for the 'u'. The sound just kind of faded over time since people barely pronounced it. Don't have a source, just remember hearing it somewhere (in a Youtube video, probably). 10:54, 20 March 2024 (UTC)

For an example of where people mispronounce vowels for comic effect, here's a 40 year old and occasionally very impolite/politically incorrect BBC comedy which used people speaking in different accents as their conceit for different languages. So an englishman speaking very bad french comes across very like these XKCD characters https://youtu.be/ycqc0L4a2wQ?si=KO_qvZqMJH-3Gy1N&t=90 Kev (talk) 16:52, 16 March 2024 (UTC)

This is highly inconsistent both with my experience and the diction/IPA I studied in college as part of a vocal music education degree. The short U [ʌ] and schwa [ǝ] are different vowels, and the difference is most obvious (in words used in the strip) in "cousin" and "obstruction" which would sound ridiculous if you pronounced all the vowel sounds exactly the same. I would have failed an assignment I turned in marking this strip full of schwas. They're almost all [ʌ] except in those words and "a" and "of". (talk) 13:10, 17 March 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Diction ('correct' diction, e.g. RP or other elevated standards) is one thing, but this is everyday casual speech. Maybe your vocal music emphasis is on something like RADA's high-baseline 'standard' accent, beating out the provincial drawl (like they certainly used to, yet anyone in a Ken Loach film is expected to use more highly local inflections (as suited to themselves and their intended character). Accents in music are going to be different (either hyper, in 'folk'/regional, suppressed in easy-listening or stylised for partifular wide genres), but again hard to compare with casual (lazy?) speech.
Ironically "of" is the one word I might not 'schwaify' so quickly. For something "I would've done it", there's a schwa in the "d'v", but "I would of course have done it" has none in the "d of" (even run together). 14:48, 17 March 2024 (UTC)

We should make this post able to be spoken only using ə. I'll have a go tomorrow if no-one does first. SqueakSquawk4 (talk) 22:30, 17 March 2024 (UTC)

I like how this is one of the most controversial comics in recent memory and it's about pronunciation. Trogdor147 (talk) 18:15, 18 March 2024 (UTC)

"Pronounciation"! 04:41, 19 March 2024 (UTC) ;)
I know, right? I think comments are also longer because we have to describe and explain the sounds and pronunciations we mean, instead of just letting people hear what we mean. Then as this discussion proves, not all pronunciations are as universal as we thought, LOL! NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:56, 23 March 2024 (UTC)