The French Schwa /ə/

The French Schwa, /ə/

Want to continue sound more “French” with your pronunciation? If so, there is a phenomena called the schwa (ə) [also known as le e muét ou le e caduct] which many French classes overlook. If you haven’t done so already, it’s recommended that you read about French Phonetics before continuing.

The Sch…what?

In the realm of phonetics and phonology, the schwa is a weak, unstressed sound. To make matters easier for Anglophones, English actually contains the schwa (horray!!), it is practically everywhere in our language.

So what does the schwa sound like? The schwa in both French and English are represented by an”uh” sound. This could be found words like sofa /ˈsəʊfə/, about /əˈbaʊt/, or suspense /səˈspɛns/ in English, while French uses them in words like le and samedi.

Do you want to see more instances of schwas in English? Look at all the highlighted ones in the following sentence as you pronounce the words:

The present for my brother is a book about wizards.

The French Schwa

In French, the schwa represents the phonemes /ø/, /œ/, or /ə/ when they are unstressed (remember, check out French Phonetics if you have no idea what I’m talking about). Now the problem with the schwa in French is not necessarily identifying the sound, but rather figuring out when to use a schwa and when to omit it.

So when do I use the schwa in French and how will it make me sound more “native”? 

The easiest instance to remember is that you have a schwa (e muet) when the letter “e” (without an accent) is at the end of a syllable.

seulement could be pronounced either suh luh man [sœ lø mɑ̃] OR suhl man [sœl mɑ̃]
samedi could be pronounced either sa muh di [sa mø di] OR sam di [sam di]
rouge could be pronounced either roo juh [ʀu ʒə] OR rooj [ʀuʒ]

Words such as table in French often omit the final schwa.

[tablə] –> [tabl]

So you noticed from the three examples above that you can either choose to pronounce the schwa, sa muh di, or omit it. When French people are speaking in everyday situations, more often than not people drop the schwa. Here is another set of examples which separates formal French from everyday French:

The sentence “Il te le dit” could be pronounced as Il te ldit

More Schwa instances in French:
je, me, te, se, ne, le, ce, de, que, petite, cela; nous ferons; vous serez; rappeler… etc.

The purpose of this article was to help you understand that in French, the schwa is a dropable French sound which many foreign learners simply overlook. The additional mechanics behind schwa removal are somewhat more complex so they will not be discussed here to avoid excess confusion. Further reading could be consulted here.

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