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'thave 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.

Consonants

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
low all¹ high
you we rare

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.

Vowels

Here are the English short vowels :

itchy early cookie
elbow ugly office
apple almond otter²

²The otter vowel is only distinguished in British dialects. Where Brits use it in words like cot, the rest of us use the almond vowel, and where Brits use it in words like caught, we use the office vowel. Here's how the different dialects write low vowels in Shwa:

BritishLexical SetOthers
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:

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 eight: 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 your, hire and flour to be one syllable, while others pronounce them like ewer, higher and flower.

hire flour
higher flower

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, some variation doesn't reduce comprehension.

The Yawn

In Island dialects (and in Boston), the rhotic off-glide is pronounced as an opening offglide, and it's written with the Yawn in Shwa :

beer
bear
bar
bore
boor

However, when the r is pronounced between vowels ("linking" r) or an epenthetic r is inserted ("intrusive" r), then it should be written 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

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.

fool
fuel
Yule

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.

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.

pan span sap
tan Stan sat
can scan sack

Many English dialects also alter medial and final t d, substituting a glottal stop, an alveolar tap, or an unreleased stop. But we consider these allophones to be non-standard, and thus not usually transcribed. However, we recognize that in standard Mainland dialects, water is pronounced with a d, and petal sounds like pedal.

Conversion Chart

Here's how to write the "English" (actually Roman) letters in Shwa :

English
(Roman)
as inShwa
Aapple
almond
all
about
acorn
pa
paw
arrow
army
Bbabe
Ccap
chin
inch
Ddude
Eelbow
early
eagle
eyeball
English
(Roman)
as inShwa
Eearring
errand
Ffluff
Ggag
George
beige
Hhigh
Iitchy
machine
ice
ire
Jjudge
Kkiss
sick
Llow
all
Mmom
Nnun
English
(Roman)
as inShwa
Nsinging
sinking
Olook
long
lot
lose
lone
loud
tour
lord
hour
Ppill
lip
Qqueen
Rroar
Ssauce
shoe
as
English
(Roman)
as inShwa
SAsia
Ttale
late
thought
though
Urut
put
rune
cute
pure
Vvalve
Wwe
Xax
Yyou
any
my
Zzoos
adze

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.

Samples

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:












© 2002-2015 Shwa shwa@shwa.org 27sep15