Why I Am Never Stressed.

Never stressed.

Two words that I have inked into my arm that carry two very important meanings.

The first and most important meaning to me is to act as a reminder to stop sweating the small stuff (spoiler alert, it only works about half the time). The second meaning corresponds to the symbol that you see above it. I don’t mean the little blue bird looking thing, we’ll talk about that soon I promise. It is associated with that upside down ‘e’ looking thing in the speech bubble.

This symbol is known as a schwa, and it stands for a mid central vowel on the IPA vowel chart that, at least in English, shows up mainly in unstressed positions. Now I know that there are some terms in that sentence that you likely haven’t heard about before and I promise, I am going to unpack them. Don’t stress about it.

First lets talk about the IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short, is an alphabetic system based primarily on the Latin script that serves as a one-to-one representation of the sounds humans make when they are speaking. This is a globally used alphabet that allows linguists to communicate about speech sounds regardless of the language that they are spoken in. The written IPA output is completely removed from meaning and only serves to describe how people are speaking without caring about what the actual words mean.

Think of it like this. If you were asked to listen to a language from a remote village in some foreign country with no clue of what they were speaking about, you probably couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it. While you are listening though, you might hear some familiar consonants and vowels though like an “eee” or an “ess” sound. With the IPA, you could then mark those down as [i] and [s] respectively and start to segment all the sounds that you are hearing. You might not be able to figure out all of the words or what is being said still, but over time and with enough data, you could start to form an idea of what some of the words are in this language because you would start to see the same sequences of sounds popping up time and time again.

Nowadays, there are other techniques that we can use to help move this along faster, but just having this universal way of describing the things that you are hearing can be largely helpful in so many areas of linguistics.

The IPA is a tool that is used beyond the realm of linguistics too. The IPA is utilized by actors, singers, speech pathologists and translators as a way to be as specific as possible about the sounds we as humans produce. There are so many interesting things to discuss when it comes to the International Phonetic Alphabet, but we came here to talk about schwa so lets just focus on the vowels for now.

Vowels are organized in a small chart that resembles a parallelogram. The location of the vowels are not as arbitrary as they may appear at first glance. Each vowel is placed in the chart according to how it is produced on two dimensions, height and backness.

To give you a better idea of what this means, lets try a little test. If you make an “eee” sound like you would in the word “feet”, you can feel how your jaw is closed up a bit, your tongue may feel slightly raised in your mouth and it might be touching or approaching the back of your teeth. Now try saying a word like “bother”. When you make the “ah” sound in the first syllable, you notice that your jaw is much more agape and your tongue is probably pushed down and toward the back of your mouth. These two vowels are the [i] and [ɑ] symbols seen on this chart respectively, with [i] being described as a “high-front vowel” and [ɑ] being described as a “low-back vowel”. Now with that in mind, you can probably start to see the logic of how this chart is organized.

If you imagine the vowel chart above overlaid onto the cross section of a human head, you can start to see how the organization of the vowels, and the way that they are described corresponds to the position of the tongue. In reality, there is a large amount of variance in the actual production of vowels in speech, but organizing the symbols in this way makes the most sense from a purely logical standpoint.

You are probably saying “wait, I though English only had a, e, i, o, and u! Why are there so many vowels on this?”. This is a perfectly valid question and it has a two part answer. The first part is that this is a completely comprehensive chart that lists all of the vowels used in all of the languages of the world. The second thing to remember is that these symbols don’t correspond to any of the vowels in a written language, these correspond to the vowel sounds that we produce when we speak.

Think about the English “u” vowel for instance. When written in a word like “hunt” it produces a sound that corresponds to the [ʌ] sound on this chart, but in a word like “muse”, it corresponds to a [u] sound which is a high back rounded vowel. That’s two different vowel sounds represented by one letter.

Now I’m sure this isn’t news to you that these words sound different, after all, we all know how broken and removed from pronunciation English spelling can be. I am just trying to emphasize that the symbols on this chart don’t correspond to any written form of a language. They are purely being used in the IPA to describe the characteristic of the vowels when they are produced, even if most of them do look familiar to you.

I feel like I’ve gotten off track here. Again, there are so many things within this chart that I could go on and on for hours talking about, but that’s not why we are here today. We are here to talk about schwa.

For all of this hype and buildup, schwa is actually the least interesting of all of the vowels listed on this chart. As I pointed out earlier, schwa is that weird upside down looking ‘e’ in the very middle of the chart. It is described as the mid central vowel, and the best way to think about it is; what would be the vowel that your mouth produces if everything was in a “neutral” position so to speak?

Think of a word like “about”. The very first vowel in that word, the one right before the “b” sound is a schwa. It might sound similar to the vowel in the word “hunt” if you were to slow it down, but in the word “about” it goes by much quicker and it feels a bit more relaxed. This is because “about” is a two syllable word and the “stress” is falling on the second syllable.

Now, stress is a whole other can of worms that we will inevitably discuss at some point, but for right now just think of it as the vowel that stands out in a word or the one that you are emphasizing when you speak. Almost every multisyllabic word in English contains a schwa. I say almost every here because there are other unstressed vowels, and there are many other cases where you are just seeing quick unstressed variants of other vowels. Statistically though, schwa shows up a ton.

I specified that schwa is unstressed in English, but this is not the case for all languages of the world. In Romanian for instance, the schwa sound even gets its own written letter and can show up as a stressed vowel. In a word like văd, which means “I see”, the ă is pronounced with a schwa vowel, and because there is only one syllable within it, this would be considered the stressed vowel within that word. So what this means for me is that my tattoo, while certainly meaningful in an English speaking country, wouldn’t translate super well if I visit Romania in the future.

This is only one small tidbit of the wonderful world that learning about IPA can teach you so I certainly encourage you to do some more reading about it, or just come back here in the future as we are sure to talk about this again in the future.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


3 thoughts on “Why I Am Never Stressed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s