Musa for English

The Home page discussed some of the problems with our current spelling :

The Musa script solves all of those problems. For example, the shapes of the letters indicate their pronunciation : vowels are small, and consonants are twice as tall. Rounded vowels are round, and unrounded vowels are unround. Closed vowels are closed, and open vowels are open. Consonants with sharp tops are sharp sounds, while consonants with smooth tops are smooth sounds, and so on.

You'll notice many more regularities as you learn Musa. Of course, you don't have to think about them as you read Musa! You'll just learn the letters, as you did with the Roman alphabet when you learned to read English. And Musa doesn't have capital letters, so there are fewer letters even though they represent more sounds.

But the fact that the letter shapes form a system is a big advantage, both for learning English and in case you spot an unfamiliar letter in a foreign language. Since Musa is a universal script, it has letters for all the sounds we don't have in English, too! But you don't need to learn all those letters - just the ones for the languages you want to read and write.


Here are the English consonants, along with examples of their use. Note that the top two rows seem to feature the same consonants: p t k ch - we'll discuss them below.

pea tea key chew
spit up start skunk itch
babe dude gag judge
fluff thirtieth sauce sheepish
valve they zoos Asia
mom nun banking
water beds cats
low all¹ high
you roar² oar² we

The letters in the last row are semivowels - they're vowels being used as consonants.

¹You may never have thought about it before, but we English speakers pronounce l differently at the end of words or syllables, as in the difference between oily and oil. In Musa, we use a different letter for this "dark" final ll.

²English dialects are divided into two large groups, and (among other features) they pronounce the r sound after vowels quite differently. Most of the American dialects (USA and Canada) are rhotic: they pronounce r after a vowel with the same sound they use before a vowel, the retroflex semivowel /ɹ/ as in roar above. Most of the Island dialects (Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Caribbean, Singapore, South Africa) are non-rhotic: an r after a vowel is pronounced by lengthening the vowel with a lowering offglide. This non-rhotic pronunciation is written in Musa with an /ə/ offglide, the letter shown in oar above.

Fortis Consonants

As mentioned elsewhere, Musa spells English at a more phonetic level than we now do, so you have to be a little more aware of how we actually pronounce our language. Fortunately, there are only a couple of tricky parts to learn. You'll encounter reduced vowels below; the other has to do with fortis consonants.

The English consonants p t ch k are called fortis: they're pronounced with more energy than the corresponding lenis consonants b d j g. In Musa, we write them with the letters in the first row above:    . They're aspirated, while the lenis consonants are voiced. The other Germanic languages feature the same distinction.

But there are several contexts when this aspiration is lost, and fortis consonants are pronounced unaspirated and unvoiced:

In these contexts, we write the fortis consonants with the letters in the second row above:    . But we don't write the lenis consonants with those letters, even though they're usually unvoiced, too. Why not? Well, in those contexts, we English speakers usually compensate for the loss of the distinction in voice by lengthening the preceding vowel, for example between had and hat. So rather than writing had as haat, we just leave the consonant voiced.

Many native English speakers don't see the point of capturing this feature in the writing system. After all, we don't distinguish the two ps now, and no problems arise. But they can hear the difference, for instance between shortstop and short's top. So the better question may be "why do we English speakers de-aspirate p t k ch in those contexts?".

I have a theory: that this de-aspiration developed to help make the distinction between p t k ch and sp st sk sh. Those clusters starting with s are rare in the world's languages, and hard to pronounce - normally, the more sonorous sounds are closer to the vowel. We don't have the same problem with sm and sn - there are no voiceless nasals in English. And German also has s-clusters, and also aspirates p t k.

But my theory doesn't explain why we merge fortis and lenis consonants in final position or at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, where that creates many homophones. Anyway, my theory is just a hypothesis, but the aspiration is undeniable.

pan span sap
tan Stan sat
chin shin cinch
can scan sack

Flap T and D

In most English dialects, when a t or d comes after a stressed vowel and before a reduced vowel, it's actually pronounced as a flap, which we spell . For example, the word writing is pronounced like riding, petal like pedal, and water as if it were wodder. This pronunciation often extends to d's, across word boundaries, or when the t is preceded by r l m or n. In these pages, we'll only flap t and d within a word, but you can spell each word as you pronounce it, or spell to a standard.


English often adds an s to the ends of words: plurals like cats, possessives like cat's, the 3rd person singular present of most verbs, like puts, and contractions with is or has, like what's. If the word ends in t, we combine it with the s and replace them both with the letter ts . Likewise, d plus s (actually, z) becomes dz , as in reads rides road's.

Why don't we just write these as consonant clusters t+s and d+z? Because we only use those clusters when the initial plosive is released before the sibilant, so we can write the difference between ratchet  and rat shit .


The English vowels differ quite a bit between dialects. We'll start by describing a general system that applies to most dialects, and then describe some of the dialectal differences.

A note for speakers outside of North America: the standard English accent is called RP, for Received pronunciation. That's what Queen Victoria spoke! But nowadays, the standard English accent has evolved somewhat. What you are more likely to hear on television these days is something called Estuary English. But here we continue to use RP as a standard, since it's so well-documented. We'll let you adjust your Musa to your accent, be it Estuary English or another, on your own.

Short Vowels

Here are the English short vowels :

itchy cookie
elbow ugly
apple otter¹

¹In many American dialects, the otter vowel has merged with adjacent long vowels. We'll discuss this in more detail below.

Reduced Vowels

In English, the rhythm of a word - which syllables are stressed and which aren't - is very important. In Musa, stressed vowels are written high - in the top half of the line - and unstressed vowels are written low - in the bottom half of the line.

Many unstressed syllables - including many one-syllable "little words" - feature reduced vowels. There are three of them in English: the mid schwa in words like a, the, of, about, above, and ago; the schwer sound in words like her, bother and butter; and the close schwi sound in words like is, it, its, if, his, in, message, bottle, bottom and button. When you hesitate as to whether the sound is an i or a u, as in London, that's a schwi. You can hear the contrast between all three in Rosa's grocer's roses.

schwa bottomRosa's
schwer bothergrocer's
schwi buttonroses

Usually, an unstressed final a as in comma, comma's or commas, or initial a as in above, is a schwa; a rhotic er reduces to schwer; and everything else reduces to schwi. But if you pronounce pigeon and Lennon differently from pidgin and Lenin, then write them with a schwa. Often, schwa before l or another vowel is not reduced to schwi, nor is unstressed i in the endings -ic and -ing.

Nor is every unstressed vowel reduced. When an unstressed vowel is not reduced, it's called secondary stress. For example, the unstressed vowels before st in historic, vestigial, plasticity, nostalgia, and crustacean are not reduced. The unstressed vowel is reduced in desert but not in expert, in prosper but not larkspur, in pertain but not flirtatious. There's no rule - the dictionary has to show secondary stress.

In some American dialects (like mine!), the schwa is pronounced like the ugly vowel: the two vowels in abut sound the same. In others, it's closer to the elbow or almond vowels. But we still write it with the letter: the schwa has a very large range of realizations, all open and unstressed. When saying it, it's not just the mouth that's relaxed - it's also the attitude!

Long Vowels

Long vowels are longer! In Musa, we consider vowels to be long even if they move a little as you say them (as they almost always do), as long as they stay in the same part of the mouth. So we consider both acorn and ocean to start with long vowels, even though they're actually pronounced as diphthongs [eɪ] and [oʊ], with rising offglides.

Long vowels are written with a following long mark . But they're often not just longer, they're also tenser, so we write them with different letters. Here are the long vowels of English:

eagle early ooze
acorn ocean

When these vowels are unstressed at the end of words like happy, yesterday, nephew, or shadow, the length is usually reduced, and we write them without the long mark. But there are many exceptions: angry is short, but pedigree is long, policies is short, but indices is long, spiky is short, but psyche is long. Unstressed tense vowels within a word are also often short, but there's no rule - the dictionary has to show length.


Diphthongs are vowels that move noticeably while you're saying them, from one vowel to another. One vowel is more prominent, and we write the other one as a semivowel. When the semivowel comes first, we call it an onglide. English has one such diphthong, the sound yu in music - we'll discuss it below. The other English diphthongs have offglides.

Two diphthongs move toward the close front vowel :

eyeball oyster

One moves toward the close back vowel :


And there are five that move down toward the rhotic vowel :

earring arrow army order tourist

In non-rhotic dialects the vowel of early is spelled with  instead of the rhotic vowel, and the rhotic offglide is spelled as an opening offglide:

beer bear bar bore boor

However, when the r is pronounced between vowels ("linking" r, as in wander off) or an epenthetic r is inserted ("intrusive" r, as in law-r and order), then it should be written with an intervocalic in Musa.

The Yu Diphthong

As I mentioned above, English has one onglide: the yu vowel in unit, beauty, few and mute. For example, the vowel in fuel is the same as the vowel in fool, except there's an onglide y in front of it.


When this diphthong follows t d s z, the y combines with them to form ch j sh zh. It's as if the word mature were spelled machure, module were spelled modjule, sure were spelled shure, and Asia were spelled Azha.

When the yu diphthong is followed by r, as in pure bureau mature, it uses the lazy vowel: .

There are also three triphthongs ending in r - pure, pyre and power - although some dialects consider hire, flour and your to be one syllable, while others pronounce them like higher, flower and ewer.

hire higher
flour flower
your ewer

Open Vowels

In American dialects, the open vowels author, otter, and almond are pronounced differently. First of all, they're all usually long. Words like lot, stop, rob, swan are pronounced  like palm, calm, bra, father, and words like cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin are pronounced like thought, taut, hawk, broad, although they could all be pronounced either  or .

IslandLexical SetAmerican
trap, bad, cab, ham, arrow
bath, staff, clasp, dance
palm, calm, bra, father
lot, stop, rob, swan
cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin
thought, taut, hawk, broad

In these pages, we'll write that cloth/thought vowel as , but you can write it as you pronounce it. When the author vowel occurs in diphthongs like oyster or order, it's always pronounced and written as .

In some American dialects, the short a as in cat is pronounced longer and tenser (closer) before nasal consonants m n ng or g. In some of these dialects, it almost sounds like a short e: can't sounds like Kent. In others, it's not that closed but it's still longer and tenser. We can write that tense a with a long mark: 

Some dialects also differentiate between the vowels of north and forth, between hurry and furry, or between marry, merry and Mary. Musa can write all of those variants, so you can either write them as you pronounce them, or write to a standard. But like story and storey, a modicum of variation doesn't reduce comprehension.

Conversion Chart

Here's how to write the Roman letters in Musa, for American English :

Romanas inMusa
almond 
all 
acorn 
pa 
paw 
arrow 
army 
early 
eagle 
eyeball 
Romanas inMusa
Eearring 
errand 
machine 
ice 
ire 
Romanas inMusa
sink 
long 
lot 
lose 
lone 
loud 
tour 
lord 
hour 
Qqueen 
Romanas inMusa
rune 
cute 
pure 
Xax 
my 

Musa spells English at a more phonetic level than we now do, so you might want to read aloud at first. The advantages are that it's much easier to learn, that foreigners will pronounce English more correctly, and that you'll pronounce their languages more correctly as you read them in Musa.


The transcriber is a tool for converting English from the Roman Alphabet to Musa:


Learning Aids

To help you learn how to read and write English in the Musa alphabet, we offer a variety of learning aids. Use the one(s) you find most useful!

Learning Aids


Now that you've learned how it works, why don't you try reading some sentences?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions

No good deed goes unpunished

And here's a limerick:


And a couple of famous quotes.


  

Finally, a complete poem:


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