In American accent, almost all vowels in non-stressed syllables and non-diphthong containing syllables can be reduced to schwas in non-careful everyday speech. Example: In 'easier to understand', 'to' and the first syllable of 'understand' are pronounced with a schwa. It is fully explained in detail in Ann Cook' book American Accent Training. In another cases we can completely delete the schwa vowel as in the first syllable of 'photography'. This feature reflects more the natural way of spoken informal standard language (language used on T.V/in universities/by educated people/by strangers).

So in comparison, in non-careful casual everyday German speech, can vowels in all non-stressed syllables (excluding those which contain diphthongs!) be reduced to schwas? Which non-stressed syllables vowels cannot be reduced to schwas? Can we render the vowels in the bold syllables in the next examples to schwas?

Computer, Deutschland, bedeutsam, bedeutunngsvoll, spezifizieren, Heimat, Wahrscheinlich.

Schwa is the most neuter unstressed vowel in German as well as in English, its sign in the phonetic alphabet is 'ə'. The same vowel in the end of words like 'Hunde, Bleibe'. In the course of everyday fast uncareful talking, many vowels may lose their original quality and tend to be more centralized with less force and finally become schwas. Germans use this vowel a lot. In English, it is the most used vowel at all.

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    Ich verstehe nicht, was Sie mit "syllables ... reduced to schwas" oder "render the bold syllables in the next examples to schwas" meinen. Schwa ist ein einzelner Laut. Grundsätzlich spricht man nicht - auch nicht im Englischen - eine ganze Silbe als Schwa aus, sondern ein Graphem in einer Silbe. In photography wird nicht pho mit Schwa gesprochen, sondern nur das darin enthaltene Graphem o - [fəˈtɑ...]. Es wäre sinnvoller, bloß das Graphem fett zu markieren, bei dem Sie unsicher sind, wie/ob es mit Schwa-Laut realisiert wird. – johnl Sep 7 '18 at 9:16
  • Of course, you are right, I don't mean the whole syllable, that is for sure, only the vowels in these syllables. – user34137 Sep 7 '18 at 9:19
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    Could you give examples (some form of phonetic notation) of such reduction to schwa in spoken American informal standard language? – Christian Geiselmann Sep 7 '18 at 9:23
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    @Christian Geiselmann In many instances, we could reduce unstressed vowels to schwa in American accent. Examples: In 'easier to understand', 'to' and the first syllable of 'understand' are pronounced with schwas. It is fully explained in detail in Ann Cook book 'American accent training'. In another examples we can completely delete the schwa vowel as in the first syllable of 'photography'. – user34137 Sep 7 '18 at 9:37
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    @Abdullah Thank you for the additional explanation. Perhaps it would be a good idea to publish this as part of the question itself? You can edit your question at any time. – Christian Geiselmann Sep 7 '18 at 10:15

German has two different schwa sounds.

  • The e-Schwa [ə] (or simply Schwa) appears in reduction syllables with -e or -en ending. In addition, this e-Schwa is often reduced to nothing in syllables with -en ending.
  • The a-Schwa [ɐ] (or Tiefschwa) appears in reduction syllables with -er ending. It's never reduced to nothing. Sometimes, a normal a is realized as an a-Schwa in fast speech.

There's an enormous difference between ə and ɐ. They have to be pronounced correctly to be able to tell apart the case endings:

eine → einə

einen → ein'n

einer → einɐ

In addition, some consonant combinations as k–n and k–m render the vowel inbetween barely hearable. You may also want to hear an e-Schwa there.

Your examples and their typical reductions:

Computer → Kəmpjutɐ

Deutschland (no reduction)

bedeutsam → bədeutsam

bedeutungsvoll → bədeutungsvoll

spezifizieren → spezifiziern (mind the missing e-Schwa)

Heimat (no reduction)

wahrscheinlich → wɐscheinlich

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    Computer mit [ə] (statt [ɔ]) zu Beginn scheint mir ein Tippfehler zu sein. – johnl Sep 7 '18 at 9:12
  • Ich habe da ursprünglich gar keinen Vokal dringehabt. So klingt es nämlich, wenn es reduziert wird. – Janka Sep 7 '18 at 9:16
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    Do reduce -e, -en and -er. Don't reduce anything else, and you are fine. And yes, there's an enormous difference between ə and ɐ, and people always make this distinction. It's required to tell apart the case endings! – Janka Sep 7 '18 at 9:30
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    einen → ein'n, einer → einɐ, eine → einə. – Janka Sep 7 '18 at 9:32
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    The prefix ver- has an a-Schwa inside. – Janka Sep 7 '18 at 9:35

Standard German has two different schwa sounds, both used only for reduction syllables:

  • Schwa ([ə])
    • -e Torte [ˈtɔʁtə]
    • -em einem [ˈaɪ̯nəm]
    • -es dieses [ˈdiːzəs]
    • -est spieltest [ˈʃpiːltəst]
  • Tiefschwa ([ɐ])
    • -er Bauer [ˈbaʊ̯ɐ]
    • -ern Federn [ˈfeːdɐn]
    • -ert hundert [ˈhʊndɐt]
    • -erst weigerst [ˈvaɪ̯ɡɐst]

Note, that those reduced syllables are standard pronunciation. This is not an effect of colloquial speech. If you want to pronounce German correctly, you strictly have to reduce those pronunciations.

Schwa and Tiefschwa are not interchangeable. There also exits lots of minimal pairs that only can be distinguished by the kind of schwa:

  • jede, jeder = [ˈjeːdə], [ˈjeːdɐ]
  • eine, einer = [ˈaɪ̯nə], [ˈaɪ̯nɐ]
  • grüne, grüner = [ˈɡʀyːnə], [ˈɡʀyːnɐ]
  • (very much more)

The Teifschwa ([ɐ]) also exists in the German diphthong [ɛɐ̯]. Most prominent example is the prefix ver-:

  • verstehen = [fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːən]
  • vertragen = [fɛɐ̯ˈtʀaːɡn̩]

Also in the Diphthog [keːɐ̯] is this sound:

  • Mehrwert = [ˈmeːɐ̯ˌveːɐ̯t]
  • ehrlich = [ˈeːɐ̯lɪç]

There is even a word with both diphthongs:

  • Verkehr = [fɛɐ̯ˈkeːɐ̯]

Even when listening to dialect speakers, I noticed reduction to one of both schwa sounds only for vowels that are written in German with the letters »e«, »ä« or »a«.

But in the south (Bavaria, Austria), you will find that »a« and »au« often shift to something like [ɔ]. In the same region you will also find much more diphthongs, that don't exist in standard German (»ein Ei« is [ɔɐ̯ ɔɐ̯] in some southern dialects).

Someone claimed in a comment, that the word »Computer« might be pronounced as [kəmˈpjuːtɐ], which I never ever have heard in my life. This doesn't mean that really nobody said this word in this way, but I just never heard it.

But what i sometimes hear is this:

  • [kʊmˈpjuːtɐ] (o became u)

And because of this pronunciation some people even write »Cumputer« (here and here and here). If someone really would use a Schwa in the first syllable, some people would write »Cemputer«, but nobody does.

So, in colloquial German people often also reduce vowels in syllables that are not Reduktionssilben in standard German, but only »e«, »ä« and »a« will become [ə] or [ɐ]. More often you will hear other vowels or even diphthongs.

  • Thanks a lot for the beautiful answer. I do know about the standard pronunciation and I have even read two books and several articles on this topic. I have also read an amazing research Segmental Reduction in Connected Speech in German by K. J. Kohler. From what I read, I did not find evidence that German tends to such types of reductions except in unstressed words (prepositions, articles,..etc ). Could you please give me some examples about »e« »ä« and »a« reductions in non Reductionssilben and point out whether such reductions frequent in everyday speech or not? – user34137 Sep 7 '18 at 15:02
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    @Hubert, ich habe ein paar Kollegen in Österreich und die sagen tatsächlich Cumputer. Das sagt hier im Norden aber keiner. Das o wird komplett verschluckt. – Janka Sep 7 '18 at 15:05

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