The Wha? Of The Schwa

I was rolling along pretty well in school.  I had mastered the ability to sleep on a towel at nap time, and I colored inside the lines.  I had learned how to read, knew the alphabet (and the alphabet song), and got the connection between printed words and verbal speech.  I also understood the concept, at least, of counting and math.

And then, at some point, the schwa came along, and I kind of lost the golden thread.

schwaDoes anyone here remember the schwa — the inverted e that purportedly signified some kind of sound and that was supposed to help kids with reading, or pronunciation . . . or something?  More importantly, does anyone here remember being helped — as opposed to being completely flummoxed — by learning about the schwa?  Even now, the definition of the schwa comes across as the same needlessly confusing morass that it was when it was first introduced in grade school.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unstressed mid-central vowel (such as the usual sound of the first and last vowels of the English word America)” and “the symbol ə used for the schwa sound and less widely for a similarly articulated stressed vowel (as in cut).”  

There, does that help?

The schwa didn’t exist when I started school and first learned to read.  At that time, the emphasis was on recognizing different words, learning how to pronounce them, and then memorizing them.  It worked perfectly well, and you could feel your working vocabulary growing.  It wasn’t a big deal that letters could be pronounced in different ways, depending on the word — that was just another part of what you had to learn, the same way you had to learn the name of your town, the name of your school, or the name of your teacher.  You accepted the different pronunciations because that’s the way that language apparently worked.  It was just something else to memorize.

The schwa didn’t help, it only muddled things.  It wasn’t a letter of the alphabet, and it didn’t appear in the Weekly Reader or any of those compelling books about Dick, Jane, and Spot.  So why in the world was the teacher trying to get baffled students to understand the schwa?  Why couldn’t we just go back to learning more actual words, the way they were actually spelled?  I decided to ignore the stupid schwa and just learn more words, and it seemed to work out okay.

Interestingly, when our kids went to school, they didn’t seem to hear about the schwa at all.  It appears that, after years of battering perplexed students with it, it was consigned onto the educational scrap heap, along Esperanto and other failed concepts.  If the schwa is gone from American education, I’m glad.