Shwa has a set of 20 basic consonants formed using four basic shapes, plus a pointy bottom. Since most languages use most of them, and many languages don't need many more consonants, we'll present these basic consonants on this page. Here they are, along with my transcriptions and the IPA symbols for the sounds in their range. As with the vowels, the actual pronunciations can vary between languages.
The columns are organized by place of articulation :
The two righthand columns are both central (and from now on, I'll show them between the coronal and dorsal columns) :
The exact points of articulation can differ from language to language, or even within a language. For example, the hushing sounds can be laminal, apical or subapical - what's important is the contrast within the row.
As you can see, all the letters in a column share the same bottom, while all the letters in a row share the same top. The rows represent manners of articulation. The plosives and affricates trap air behind a blockage; the plosives release it quickly, while the affricates let it out slowly. The fricatives and sibilants channel air through a narrow passage.
Each manner has two rows which differ by voice : each pair has one voiced letter and its unvoiced
counterpart. There's much more to voice than that, but we'll discuss it later.
Most of these consonants are familiar from English :
All the other Shwa consonants are variants of this set, with another shape replacing either the top or the bottom of the letter, or both. But we call these five bottoms the basic bottoms.
Unlike English, Shwa has single letters for the homorganic affricates dz ts dj and ch. But all other affricates have to be written as digraphs - two letters - although they are single sounds. That includes heterorganic affricates like Greek ψ ps, ζ ts (z), or ξ ks (x) and non-sibilant affricates like German pf (but lateral affricates as in Navajo dl have their own Shwa letters, which you'll meet later). In all those cases, Shwa writes them as digraphs: for example, Greek ψ ps is written as p followed by s, as if it were a consonant cluster, even though it actually represents a simple plosive with a sibilant release.
Shwa uses its homorganic affricates to replace a sequence of plosive + sibilant, even across a syllable or morpheme boundary. So, for instance, the English contraction it's is written just like the possessive pronoun its. Likewise, English plurals as in cats or beds, possessives as in Matt's or Ted's and 3rd person singular present verbs like chats or spreads are all written with affricates.
Most languages have nasal phonemes, pronounced by letting air out through your nose as you block your mouth. Shwa has several nasal letters - here are three of them. As you can see, m n ng look just like the Shwa letters for b d g, with the top replaced by a nasal triangle (pointing upwards).
They're all pronounced as in English :
• The m sound occurs twice in English mime
• The n sound occurs twice in English noon
• The ng sound occurs twice in English banking. This sound doesn't occur at the beginnings of syllables in English, but it's not hard to pronounce there.
These letters are also used to spell prenasalized sounds, very common in Africa. For instance, here's the name N'Djamena, the capital of Chad :
Prenasals combine a nasal with the homorganic obstruent : the one pronounced at the same place of articulation. They're not clusters ; they function as single consonants (many of those languages have no consonant clusters). The difference between the Bantu word congo and the English word congo is analogous to the difference between English its and it's ; they sound the same, but in the former, the ng functions phonologically as a single letter, and the first syllable ends in o. However, in Shwa (and in all the current orthographies), we write them as if they were clusters:
Lateral consonants like l are also very common in the world's languages, and Shwa has letters for them that use a circle for the top.
The l letter represents the sound we use at the beginning of English syllables, as in low, while the ll letter represents the sound we use at the end of English syllables, as in all. An example using both of them is the word lateral itself:
Rhotic consonants like r use a zigzag top.
In addition to the English wr you met as a semivowel, Shwa has two rhotics that use the basic bottoms:
Normally, each language only uses one of these, but some languages use two, for example Catalan, Portuguese and (here) Spanish :
Shwa has two letters for sounds pronounced using only your glottis : there's no constriction higher in your mouth. They're just phonations being used as consonants.
The easier is the letter h, pronounced just as in English. Some languages, for example Hindi, Dutch and several Slavic languages (Czech, Ukrainian), pronounce the h with breathy voicing, which Shwa writes with the same letter.
The other glottal letter is the glottal stop, which we'll call the Catch and transcribe using the apostrophe '. We use it in English in expressions like uh-oh, or to distinguish between op art and apart or between so I and so why. It occurs in many of the world's languages, for example, Arabic (where it's called hamza), Nahuatl (saltillo) and Hawai'ian (ʻokina).
In French, a Catch is used at the beginning of words to indicate that the word doesn't form liaison with the preceding word, the role now played by the h aspiré:
(As you'll learn later, the space between words usually includes a dot.)
We use a vertical line within a word to indicate some separation, but less separation than a space - in other words, to link words more closely than a space permits. This is the role played in English by the hyphen, the underscore and even the dot in our dot.com era. We call it the Break.
A Break is like a Space that doesn't end a word. In other words, it has the same effect on pronunciation as a Space would, but without ending the word. For that reason, we don't use a Break before or after a Space. Unlike the Catch or the yh semivowel, with which it's sometimes confused, the Break has no sound of its own - it's just an orthographic symbol. But it does affect pronunciation.
Generally, the Break represents the start of a new syllable. For example, the Break can be used to indicate an unexpected break between syllables:
What do we mean by unexpected? As a rule, Shwa splits consecutive consonants down the middle, with the odd consonant being initial. In other words, a single consonant between two vowels is considered initial, while the first of two or three consonants is considered final. So if you are typing the word parsnip, Shwa thinks the r ends the first syllable, while the sn begins the second syllable. In English, it's not important where we break syllables - it might be lear-ning or learn-ing - but in many languages, it is.
For example, in Chinese, each syllable has its own meaning, and is written separately both using traditional characters and in Shwa. In Chinese, and other languages written in character gait, we use a Break to separate syllables. But in character gait, we don't need to write the Break as a vertical line; the break between characters suffices to show where the Break is.
The Break is also used to write hiatus between consecutive vowels when no consonant separates them. Since the Break is a consonant, the end result is that in Shwa no two vowels are written consecutively.
Geminate (doubled) consonants appear in many languages, and differ from single consonants, as in Italian fatto versus fato. Shwa writes them simply by writing the consonant twice, as we do in the Roman alphabet (but not in Arabic script or Japanese kana). For most consonants, the geminate version is simply held longer, but for stops, it's the pause between closure and release that is prolonged - neither is repeated.
The letters you've already met are Shwa's 55 basic letters. Here they are again :
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