“ə” Happens

Brock Brady

Note: “ə” in various phonetic transcription systems represents the unstressed neutral vowel which has the sound of "a" in comma.

“ə”  (pronounced “schwa”) is probably the handiest sound in English.  I’ve even been guilty of telling students, “when in doubt, all unaccented syllables in English go to ‘ə.’”  Of course this is a sloppy rule because there are frequent exceptions.  But try turning every vowel sound in the opening sentence here into ə:  “ə” (prənəncəd “schwə”) əs prəbəbly thə həndəəst sənd ən əngləsh.  Yes, it sounds strange, but it’s not completely unintelligible.  “ə”—a very handy sound.  Buy your best students a whole box of əs for an end of semester treat. They’ll use them up in no time—then ask for more!

So I have a certain fondness for ə (but don’t get me started on glottal stops—I could play with them for hours)!  I suspect all of us English teachers have aspects of English or language in general that we’re partial to.  I find it’s very easy to pick out some of my favorite features—either because they solve big problems or simply because they are so weird.  

For example, crazy English non-counts:  why in the world can’t you count “information?” And I think that “vocabulary” is non-count only as a devious device to trip up nonnative English speaking teachers.  Why is it you can count dollars, rupis, pesos or cedis, but not “money?”  Why can you count seconds, minutes, and hours, but not “time?”  And “equipment”or “gear?”—notions so concrete should be countable—English—who thought this stuff up?

On the other hand, for pure philosophical sublimnity you can only admire the distinction between the simple past and the present perfect: if the action occurs in the past and the period of time in which the action could occur is finished, then you employ the simple past tense (I met President Reagan). But if the time when a past action is not finished and continues into the present (and indeed, could possibly continue into the future), then you use the present perfect (I have met President Obama). What other tense and aspect system gives you that kind of existential majesty—I ask you now?

What are your favorite parts of English?  The ones you like to teach? The ones your students find just plain bizarre?   Share your thoughts, I bet we can come up with a fascinating collection of bits from this crazy yet wonderful language that really belongs to no one, but has been shared (and can still be shared, eh?), by everyone.

Brock Brady
President, TESOL 

About Brock Brady

Brock Brady
Brock Brady is the programming and training education specialist for the U.S. Peace Corps, a volunteer development agency. He was President of TESOL International Association from March 2010 to March 2011. Before coming to Peace Corps, Brady served as Coordinator then Co Director of the American University TESOL Program in Washington, DC for 12 years. Brady also directed English Language Programs for the State Department in Burkina Faso and Benin, lectured at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) for two years in Korea, served as a Fulbright Scholar in France, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, W. Africa. Brady’s research interests include English language planning and policy, program and course design, and pronunciation. He has also taught English or engaged in educational consulting in more than 20 countries
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3 Responses to “ə” Happens

  1. Gail Doughty says:

    I like to teach the German, Latin and Greek roots of English and the History of the English language–then again I am at heart a HISTORY teacher!

  2. Jan Schmidt says:

    Idioms, definitely — connotation and denotation. I had a student who would watch movies and write the dialogue — usually full of idioms, and then he would ask me, “What does it mean?” and “How can I use it?”

  3. nadia says:

    I’d like to admit that I’m a grammar nerd! I love to solve grammar puzzles and I don’t care how bizarre my native speaker friends find that! the most exciting moment hits when they get it wrong and I get it right!! its just the look in their eyes that make my day :D

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