Shwa for English

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

The Shwa script solves all of those problems. Here's how :

Letter Shapes

The shapes of the letters indicate their pronunciation :

You'll notice many more regularities as you learn Shwa. Of course, you don't have to figure all this out as you read Shwa! You'll just learn the letters, as you did with the Roman alphabet when you learned to read English. And Shwa 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 Shwa 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 row features aspirated versions of the consonants in the next row - 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 low all¹ high
you rar we

The last three letters are semivowels - they're vowels being used as consonants.

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

²English dialects are divided into two large groups based on their pronunciation of the r sound after vowels. Most of the Mainland dialects (North America) are rhotic: they pronounce r after a vowel with the same sound they use before a vowel, as the retroflex semivowel /ɹ/. Most of the Island dialects (Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) are non-rhotic: an r after a vowel is pronounced by lengthening the vowel, perhaps with a lowering offglide. This non-rhotic pronunciation is written in Shwa with a Yawn offglide (see below).


Here are the English short vowels :

itchy early² cookie
elbow ugly office
apple almond otter³

²As with the r semivowel, in non-rhotic dialects the er vowel is pronounced differently: as a long unrounded central vowel which we write with the letter. But unlike the relaxed schwa that this letter normally represents in English when short, the long version is not relaxed; it is precisely the unrounded version of the vowel spelled eu in French or ö in German.

³The otter vowel is only distinguished in Island dialects. Where Islanders use it in words like cot, Mainlanders use the almond vowel, and where Islanders use it in words like caught, Mainlanders use the office vowel. Here's how the different dialects write low vowels in Shwa:

IslandLexical SetMainland
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 English, the rhythm of a word - which syllables are stressed and which aren't - is very important. In Shwa, 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.

English also has reduced vowels that are only used in unstressed syllables, including many "little words" that aren't usually stressed. You've already met two of these reduced vowels: the ugly sound in words like a, the, of, about, above, ago and bottom; and the early sound in words like her, bother and butter. The third is a close spread back vowel in words like is, it, its, if, his, in, message, bottle and button - we'll call it the ih sound. You can hear the contrast in Rosa's grocer's roses.

eh bottomRosa's
er bothergrocer's
ih bottleroses

Usually, the high vowels i and u reduce to the ih sound, and the others reduce to the eh sound unless followed by an r. But when deciding which Shwa letter to use for a reduced vowel, don't pay too much attention to how it's written - just listen to it. And not every unstressed vowel is reduced, either (when an unstressed vowel is not reduced, it's called secondary stress).

Here are the English diphthongs, short vowels with an off-glide. Two of them - acorn and ocean - use closer short vowels than the ones used alone.

eagle earring
acorn arrow
eyeball owl army
oyster ocean order
loony boor

As you can see in the last column, not all of the vowels can appear before r: many of them merge, and there's quite a range among dialects. The minimum set seems to be nine: all dialects distinguish per/purr, peer, pear, par, pore, poor, pure, pyre and power. Some dialects also differentiate between the vowels of north and forth, between hurry and furry, or between marry, merry and Mary. Some consider hire, flour and your to be one syllable, while others pronounce them like higher, flower and ewer.

hire higher
flour flower
your ewer

Shwa 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.

The Yawn

Words that end in the a sound, like pa ma bra, are written with a Yawn offglide, since short vowels can't end stressed syllables in English.

Yawn (wh)

Because of this, the name Shwa is spelled with a Yawn in English, although it's not usually spelled that way in other languages, and the standard file extension for Shwa text . doesn't end in a Yawn.

Words that end in a stressed aw sound, like paw law saw, are also written with a Yawn offglide, but not when there's a final consonant, as in pause.

paw pause

Likewise, words that end in a stressed er sound, like purr fur stir, are written with a rhotic offglide, but not when there's a final consonant, as in purse.

purr purse

As mentioned above, in non-rhotic dialects the rhotic off-glide is pronounced as an opening offglide, and it's written with the Yawn in Shwa :


However, when the r is pronounced between vowels ("linking" r) or an epenthetic r is inserted ("intrusive" r), then it should be written with the pre-vocalic in Shwa.

Long Mark

When the off-glide matches the vowel (or close enough), we call it a long vowel, and we abbreviate it by writing just the stem, which is called the Long mark.

eagle loony
acorn ocean
fur, sir, (stressed) her

The Yu Diphthong

English has one other diphthong: 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 a semivowel y in front of it. When a semivowel occurs in front of the vowel, we call it an on-glide.


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.

This yu diphthong also has a rhotic form that makes the difference between pure and poor, bureau and boor, mature and tour.

Aspirated Consonants

As mentioned elsewhere, Shwa 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 already encountered reduced vowels; the other has to do with aspirated consonants.

The little hooks on the noses of the letters p t k ch in the first row above indicate that these sounds are aspirated in English : they're pronounced with a little puff of air at the end. But we only aspirate those sounds at the beginning of words or the beginning of stressed syllables, not at the end of a syllable or after an s. In those latter cases (and at the beginning of a non-initial unstressed syllable, as in sleepy), we use the letters without the hook.

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 aspirate initial p t k ch?". I have a theory: that this 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, as in print. The type of contexts where we aspirate supports my theory, and so does the fact that 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. Anyway, my theory is just a hypothesis, but the aspiration is undeniable.

pan span sap
tan Stan sat
can scan sack
chin shin cinch

Flap T and D

In many English dialects, when a t comes between a stressed and a reduced vowel, it often "sounds like a d", but it's actually being pronounced as an 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. You can spell each word as you pronounce it, or spell to a standard; in these pages, we'll only flap t and d within a word.

Final Affricates

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, 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.

Conversion Chart

Here's how to write the Roman English letters in Shwa :

as inShwa
as inShwa
as inShwa
as inShwa

For those of you who are familiar with the (excellent) color vowel system, here is a chart of the vowel colors:

Shwa 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 Shwa.


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:


© 2002-2018 Shwa 20jun18