As well as being an upside-down lower case e used to represent the neutral vowel in the phonetic alphabet, Schwa refers to the Schwa corporation, a creation of some artist guy who likes to make cool glow-in-the-dark alien heads.

The Schwa logo is one of those archetypal pointy-chin, big-eyed aliens. Very iconic.

The schwa is the unstressed vowel that occurs systematically in many German and Dutch words. In normal spelling, it is usually written as e; in the phonetic alphabet, an e upside down. It sounds like a short unstressed uh. Historically it usually developed from a 'real' vowel, often an a.

Examples of systematic schwa in Dutch:

many words, especially nouns, end in schwa
zijde (silk), mode (fashion), hybride (hybrid)
most plurals of nouns are formed with -en
huis (house), huizen (houses) - the English -es has a schwa too, but it sounds like ih rather than uh. The -e in house is silent; a schwa isn't.
the plural forms of the verb have -en
ik lach (I laugh), we lachen (we laugh)
adjectives have a form with -e:
een klein huis (a small house), het kleine huis (the small house)
the perfect participle is formed with ge-
ik heb gelachen (I have laughed) - in English the e in -ed may have been a schwa, but it is totally silent now
'Schwa' is used both for the IPA symbol ə (HTML code ə) and more generally for the sound itself, as a synonym for neutral vowel. By neutral is meant that it is midway between the highest and lowest, and the furthest forward and back, positions that the tongue reaches in making vowels.

The term 'schwa' originates in Hebrew grammar, where it could also be spelt shewa or sheva or shwa. It refers to the sign of two dots one above the other, placed under a consonant to indicate either that it had no following vowel, or that it had a short following neutral vowel. The choice of which it is depends on syllable structure in a rather complicated way I'm not confident enough to explain.

It also occurred combined with one of several other vowels, such as seghol for a mid-open /e/. This combination is called hateph-seghol. This is traditionally described as an extra short seghol, but it might actually have been a vowel that could be either neutral or seghol, e.g. as you get fluctuation in English 'remain', 'November': some speakers, at least in some situations, use a short "i" or "e" vowel in 'remain', others or at other times use a true neutral vowel.

These fine details of vowel sounds were laid down when the Masoretic pointing was devised for Hebrew, a thousand years or so after the consonant texts had been written. Linguists disagree over how to relate them back to the living language of Biblical Hebrew.

In English the schwa is the first and third vowel in 'banana' (I think few people would use an actual "a" vowel there), or the U in 'circus', or the O in 'bigot'. With E and I it is more dependent on dialect: in most American and Australian speech the unstressed E of 'remain' or I of 'horrid' are also neutral vowels, but in some varieties of British, especially in Received Pronunciation, they are a short I, so that 'livid' has both vowels the same. In the non-rhotic accents the unstressed sequences containing R as in 'letter', 'beggar', 'victor' are also schwas.

In most languages where it occurs, the sound is confined to unstressed positions. In Bulgarian you can have stress on neutral vowels.

The schwa sign is used as a letter of the alphabet in Chechen; and also in the new romanization of Azeri, as in Azərbaycan. The capital form is a bigger upside-down e, not an upside-down E. However it is not pronounced as a neutral vowel, but as a front vowel [æ] and was formerly written ä.

(2004) I've started using the HTML code lately because browsers these days seem to show it even if they don't show most IPA symbols. The SAMPA (7-bit ASCII) equivalent of ə is @.


The ovoid-faced entities that dominate the stickpeople world of Bill Barker. The Schwa are masters of persuasion and thought control, and it is by making these processes explicit that Barker deconstructs particularly insidious mainstream memes.

The Schwa are ever-present, ever-watching, and irresistable. They subjugate the hapless stickpeople through cunning manipulation of their anxieties and hopes. The stickpeople gladly give up their souls for trinkets or the promise of salvation.

Barker's illustrations are at times claustrophobic, at times agoraphobic, yet always posess a thematic minimalism that cuts to the heart of consumer culture.

Barker started emanating the Schwa gestalt in 1992 from Reno, Nevada. This meme was later commercialized in the form of The Schwa Corporation, which published the Schwa World Operations Manual in 1997.

"Stickpeople must not only be persuaded to accept Schwa's total control, they should be conditioned to ask for it by name."

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