In addition to the sounds described above, most languages use supersegmental features which vary the volume (loudness), musical pitch and timing of sounds. We'll describe them in that order.


English is a good example of a language with stress: some syllables are pronounced louder, at higher pitch and held longer than they otherwise would be. English words usually have one stressed syllable : the native stress falls on the first syllable of a word, but imported words often have stress on the next-to-last (penultimate) syllable. "Small" words like articles and common prepositions and conjunctions often have no stress, as if they were part of the surrounding words.

In Shwa, stressed vowels are written high, hanging from the top of the line. To type them, you press the vowel key, followed by the Space key (while for low vowels you press Space before the vowel sign).

Here's how high vowels are used :


Many languages also use tones to vary the musical pitch of vowels. Shwa spells tones using small accent marks over or under the vowels. There are three of them :

Let me show you an example of how these accents are used to write tones. In Chinese, there are four contour tones, and a "fifth" tone consisting of no tone. Here are examples:

中文 Pinyin Tone Number Tone Description Sound Shwa Tone Name Shwa
1st tone Level tone High Level tone
2nd tone Rising tone High Rising tone
3rd tone Dipping tone Low Level tone
4th tone Falling tone High Falling tone
ma "5th" tone Neutral tone No tone

As you can see, the accents are written above low vowels to indicate a low tone, and below high vowels to indicate a high tone. it's the position of the vowel, not the accent, that makes a tone high or low. Also note that the level tone marks are used for peaking and dipping tones (which are usually written with a circumflex or caret and a caron or breve ).

Here's how this system extends to some other well-known tonal languages:

Tone Shwa Language Tone Name
Mid tone
Chinese Neutral ("5th")
Cantonese Upper Departing (3rd)
Vietnamese ngang (level)
Thai Mid
High Rising tone Chinese Rising (2nd)
Cantonese Upper Rising (2nd)
Vietnamese ngã (tumbling)
High Level tone Chinese High (1st)
Hong Kong Cantonese Upper Level (1st)
Thai High
High Falling tone Chinese Falling (4th)
Guangzhou Cantonese Upper Falling (1st)
Vietnamese nặng (heavy)
Low Falling tone Chinese 3rd before a different tone
Cantonese Lower Level (4th)
Vietnamese hỏi (asking)
Thai Falling
Low Level tone Chinese Dipping (3rd)
Cantonese Lower Departing (6th)
Vietnamese huyền (hanging)
Thai Low
Low Rising tone Chinese 3rd before another 3rd tone
Cantonese Lower Rising (5th)
Thai Rising
Vietnamese sắc (sharp)

Here's how the accents are used :

Vowel Voice

The accents are also used to indicate vowel voicing, the vowel equivalent of the phonation discussed on the More Voices page. Most languages only distinguish among their vowels using "major" features: high-mid-low, front-back, round-compressed-spread, short-long (or tense or advanced tongue root), nasalization and tone, and you already know how to write those in Shwa. But some languages also distinguish vowels based on pharyngealization, stridency or phonation: there are creaky, hollow, stiff, slack, harsh and breathy vowels.

As with consonants, Shwa doesn't try to capture the details. In languages which display any of these features, we use the three accents for them, reserving the unaccented letters for "normal" vowels. The spelling is standardized as follows:

slack, harsh or breathyRising
pharyngealized, stiff, hollow, or creaky (stød)Falling
strident, voiceless, doubly marked or anything elseLevel

As far as I know, there's no ambiguity within languages, although of course the accents mean different things in different languages.

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