Gaits

On the Principles page, I mentioned that Shwa can be written in several different Gaits. The underlying word - the 1D form - is the same, but the visible 2D form is different. In particular, the gaits differ on how vowels are written, in relation to consonants. All gaits are written from left to right in a row, with rows following each other down the page, and subsequent pages to the right or behind the current page.

Gaits are implemented by the font, as ligatures. So, for example, you could change the font on your Chinese document to change between Alphabet and Character gaits - the underlying data is the same. But each language is normally written in a single gait; for example, English is always written in Alphabetic gait, and Chinese in Character gait, even when an English name is embedded in a Chinese text.

Why does Shwa offer multiple gaits?

Before talking about the individual gaits, let's discuss why gaits are useful. All languages are a sequence of sounds, but those sounds are grouped together into larger units in different ways: words, syllables, mora (consonant + vowel) or sequences of consonants. That's why the scripts of the world are of different types: alphabets, abjads, syllabaries and characters. The various Shwa gaits focus readers on those units, highlighting what's important in each language.

For example, there are many languages in East Asia whose syllables fit a fixed pattern : each syllable has its own meaning, even when combined into a longer word, and has at most five elements (initial, semivowel, tone, vowel and coda) drawn from limited sets. In this system, it's important to delimit each syllable so that they can be recognized as a unit, and it's not so important to separate words. In fact, written Chinese and Korean don't need word spacing, while Vietnamese, written in the Roman alphabet, does (and so does Shwa). The Character gait also makes similar syllables more different, helping us recognize them more easily.

In contrast, English words have complicated syllables, with varying lengths, consonant clusters, and many choices at each position. The division into words is very important, while the division into syllables isn't (is the first syllable of learning really lear?). For English, an alphabet enables us to build up words sound by sound, using spaces to separate each word from the next. And the Alphabet gait even allows us to indicate word stress - very important in English - without using accent marks. Most of these traits are shared by most other Indo-European languages, and they use Alphabet gait, too.

But there are many languages, from all over the world, whose syllables are restricted to consonant+vowel, and they often don't have many of either. In this category fit almost all the Austronesian and Niger-Congo languages (two of the largest language families in the world), in addition to many of the world's less-studied languages and even Japanese. For these languages, a syllabary is the best choice, since an alphabet would be too short - there are too few symbols to make words as different as they should be. For example, Hawai'ian has only 8 consonants and 5 vowels, and an alphabet makes many words look alike. I'm srue yuo've seen thsoe snetneces yuo can raed eevn wehn teh leterts aer jmbeuld. But the Hawai'ian syllabary has 40 kana, three times as many distinct symbols.

There are also many languages with mostly consonant+vowel syllables, but a few syllables have either final consonants or initial consonant clusters. Many of these languages are now using scripts in which vowels play a lesser role: abugidas or alphasyllabaries. In this category fall the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages, but even Japanese has occasional final consonants. All these are also written in Syllabary gait.

The Arabic script is an abjad whose short vowels are normally not written. That makes sense in Arabic and the other Afro-Asiatic languages, where the vowels are grammatical and can be inferred (just as stress can be inferred in many languages) if you know the language. It makes less sense in Farsi and Urdu, also now written in the Arabic script. Shwa writes Farsi and Urdu in Syllabary gait, but writes the Afro-Asiatic languages in the Alphabet gait with vowels.

We're not using the gait names in their scholarly sense. Scholars consider that a syllabary can't be featural, so they would consider Shwa Syllabary gait to be an abugida, but since all Shwa gaits are featural, we won't make that distinction. Scholars consider that a pure abjad has no written vowels, and that an abugida or alphasyllabary must have an unmarked inherent vowel, but Shwa writes all vowels in all gaits. We've just chosen names for the gaits that describe what level they focus on, not the details of how they work. In all cases, using the appropriate Shwa gait focuses the reader on the salient scale of the text, whether that be words, syllables, mora or consonantal roots.

The Alphabet Gait

Most of the Shwa you've seen so far has been in the Alphabet gait. It works like the Roman alphabet we use to write English and most European languages : each letter is written separately, in its own space, and words are separated from each other by a dot. Vowels are just as wide as consonants, but they're only half the height, so they can be written either high or low.

The Alphabet gait is used for most languages that currently use a real alphabet. However, many languages that were first given written forms in the last century or so, usually by scholars, missionaries or colonists from alphabet-using languages, should choose whichever gait is most appropriate. In those cases, which gait to use depends on the phonology of the language. In general, Alphabet gait is used for languages with consonant clusters, diphthongs, and a wide variety of syllable lengths and formulas.

The Ligature Gait

We don't consider it an official gait, but Alphabet gait with ligatures is like a gait - it's a way to rearrange the letters so that phonological units are easier to see.

The Abjad Gait

The Abjad gait is an ornamental gait for Arabic, in which a word is built around a trio of consonants. This root is the skeleton on which words are built by adding vowels to show inflection and derivation. In the traditional Arabic script, short vowels are usually not written, since readers can infer them (jst as yu cn infr thm in Englsh). A special letter (hamza in Arabic) is used to write a lone vowel. But in the Shwa Abjad gait, vowels are always written out.

The Abjad gait is cursive: the letters of a word flow together. In Abjad gait, the bottom of each consonant is connected to the top of the next consonant in the same word, while the vowels are written above and below the cursive line of consonants. In some fonts, they fit within the two cell height of the consonants, while in others they are completely above and below, or halfway between.

Consider the following diagram :

This shows the skeleton of an Abjad word. The first consonant starts at upper left and descends to lower right, and then there is a return stroke up and to the right to meet the next letter. The last letter ends at lower right with no return. High vowels are written above the bottom of the preceding consonant, while low vowels are written below the top of the preceding consonant. The results will look best if you vary the horizontal distance between letters to keep the spacing even - Abjad gait is Shwa's only proportional width gait. Because all the letters of a word are connected, we can omit the dot between words, if we want.

What distinguishes one letter from another are the little dances that the pen does at the top and bottom of each stroke. For example, here's the name of the month Ramaḍān, shown first in Abjad gait and then in Alphabet gait. I've colored each letter to highlight it.

Note that each letter connects to the next with a return stroke (gray), but the original shapes are recognizable, albeit with some license. Here's what the tops of Shwa letters look like :

And here are the bottoms :

Doubled consonants can be written as an "echo" of the stem of the letter.

Let's look at an example, the name of the famous Caliph of Baghdad, Hārūn 'ar-Rashīd bin Muḥammad bin 'al-Manṣūr, the hero of the Arabian Nights. First, here is his name in traditional Arabic script :

Here is the same name in Shwa Alphabetic gait:

And here is the same name in Shwa Abjad gait:

Arabic uses a Catch for syllables that start with a vowel.

Please bear in mind, as you compare the Arabic and Shwa versions, that Arabic calligraphy has had fifteen centuries to perfect their beautiful letterforms, while Shwa is just beginning - the example above is constant-width line on a grid. If you are a calligrapher, perhaps you'd like to show us how beautiful Shwa script can be. But the Abjad gait is based not on Arabic calligraphy, but on Islamic geometric art and architecture.

The Syllabary Gait

The Syllabary gait is used for languages whose words are a series of open syllables, like Japanese, Hawai'ian, and the Bantu languages. Each syllable consists of one consonant and one vowel (called a mora), combined into a square symbol called a kana. The consonant is written normally, but it has the vowel sticking out from one side of the bottom, sideways or maybe even upside down.

The vowels are written in the same style as semivowels, with a couple of exceptions (notably the oe vowel). They can be reflected left↔right to connect most easily, and are all written without lifting the pen, although in the cases of ae and a the pen has to retrace a stroke.

It may help to note that the open vowels all end in two feet, like an electrical plug.

Low vowels are written low, and high vowels are written high, but not as high as the top of the consonant.

To illustrate how the vowels connect, here's an example of each bottom:

The vowels of the first group attach to the "waist" of the consonant: low vowels hang down from the waist, and high vowels float up from the waist. Note that if the bottom is pointy (the first two columns), the vowel goes on the same side as the stem, and you have to retrace some of the stem to get back to the waist. The low vowels of the second group sit on the "foot" of the consonant, and high vowels - written upside down! - are connected by a quarter circle.

Accents are written above the vowel. For example, the name of the language Yorùbá features no tone on the o, a low tone on the u and a high tone on the a :

A Break is always written at the lefthand side of the kana. However, a Break is not used after a dot.

Consonants without a following vowel, for instance the first consonant of a cluster, an offglide or a final consonant, are also written alone. The moraic nasal and moraic obstruent of Japanese are written this way, for instance the p and n in the word teppanyaki :

Usually, languages written in Syllabary gait have only simple CV or CVC syllables, but initial digraphs using suffixes are common, too. The sequence consonant + suffix + vowel is written as one kana, using the ligature as consonant, and so is prenasal + consonant + vowel. For example, here is the Japanese word 病気 byōki :

If a syllable beginning with a semivowel follows a syllable with a final consonant, you have to insert a Break between the two syllables. Otherwise, it will seem as if the semivowel is a suffix. The Break is never written as a ligature.

The Topline or Abugida Gait

When Indo-Aryan languages are written in Syllabary gait, you may see a topline connecting the letters of each word. Topline fonts don't need dots between words, and they typically use only high long marks. You may also see conjuncts, which are clusters of consonants written as one double letter. But even fonts with conjuncts tend to use them only for clusters that typically appear in the same syllable, like st or tr.

For example, here's a quote (from Kālidāsa), showing the Abugida gait with one conjunct (svā), in comparison to the same phrase in numerous Brahmi-derived scripts :


(Unfortunately, I don't have the accents for the original, so I've shown all the vowels as low, with no tone marks.)

The Character Gait

Perhaps you already knew that a fluent Chinese reader can read faster than a fluent English reader, presumably because Chinese words look more different from each other than English words. It's common knowledge that we don't read by sounding out each letter, but by comprehending the entire "word picture" in a glance. That's why typography is so important, and why weird fonts are so hard to read.

The Character Gait is the Shwa version of Chinese characters - it's a way to compress all the letters of a word into a small space, to show the boundaries of each word more clearly, and still to make words look as different as possible from each other within the constraints of a phonetic script (which Chinese writing is not). In other words, we're trying to keep all the advantages of Chinese writing with none of the disadvantages.

The Character gait is used for languages which share most of the following criteria :

The list of languages that fit these criteria is dominated by east Asia :

I used the words word and syllable above without clarifying, and there's some confusion about what a word is. In most of these languages, every syllable is a morpheme - it carries a meaning on its own - but syllables still combine to form longer words. For example, the Chinese word for tomorrow is 明天 míngtiān, whose two components mean bright and day. The English also breaks down into to (meaning at, on) and morrow (meaning morning). But tomorrow and 明天 are both still one word, not two.

In the current scripts for these languages, there is no separation between words, further muddying the distinction between a word and a syllable (or morpheme). (With the pinyin romanization, Chinese has now introduced rules for when to use a space between words.) But in Shwa, we do use a dot to separate words.

The goal of Character gait is to make each syllable look as distinctive as possible, despite being composed of the same shapes in the same square. Here's how it works: each block is written in a square that measures 3x3 "cells" the size of a Shwa vowel. In this square are arranged the following elements :

  1. The Initial consonant (marked as yellow "I" below), combined with any following Medial to form a ligature
  2. The Accent (marked as red "A" below)
  3. The Vowel (marked as green "V" below)
  4. The Coda (marked as blue "F" for "final" below) offglide or consonant

The Initial consonant or ligature always fills the entire lefthand column. This helps to establish the rhythm of characters. If there's no initial, a null initial is used : which one depends on the language. For example, Chinese and Korean use the yh letter, while Thai and Vietnamese use a Catch.

The position of the other elements depends on the accent:

As with Syllabary gait, if a syllable beginning with a semivowel follows a syllable with a final consonant, you have to insert a Break between the two syllables. Otherwise, it will seem as if the semivowel is a suffix. The Break is written alone (not as a ligature). In the example below, without the Break the syllables split between the i and the n; with the Break, the split is between the Break and the y:

幾年 謹嚴
jǐ-nyán jǐn-yán

In Character gait, the Rising and Falling accents are written with a semicircular tail to make them taller. Syllables with no accent, for example neutral tone in Chinese, mid tone in Thai, level tone in Vietnamese or 3rd tone in Cantonese, use a double semicircle to indicate the absence of an accent (which doesn't mean the absence of a tone).

However, languages with no tones, for example Korean or Khmer, just use characters with two columns. Since this is a property of the font, not the text, we can consider Block gait to be another gait. (In Block gait, the initial doesn't fill the first column unless it is a ligature.)

The patterns above are enough to handle most of the cases. Here are some examples from Chinese :

There are a few other patterns. If there is both an offglide and a final consonant, as in Myanmar or Vietnamese, then the offglide is written in the second column, but lined up with the final consonant. The vowel and accent (without the semicircular tail) get squeezed into a single cell each :

If the initial is a consonant cluster, as in Thai or Khmer, then the second consonant of the initial is written "staggered" in the second column :

In other words, if there are consonants in both the second and third columns, if they're lined up, they're both part of the final, while if they're staggered, the first one is part of the initial.

Myanmar and Khmer also feature sesquisyllabic words with a minor first syllable. These can be written in Shwa as one character:

In Khmer, these minor syllables might even include a medial r (marked as a yellow 'r' below) or end in a nasal (marked as a blue 'N' below). Khmer isn't tonal, so there are no accents.

In many of these languages, there are also a few words that merit special attention, for instance er in Chinese (Beijing dialect) and mh in Cantonese. But they're written in the same style.

And here is the Cantonese particle a, used to soften questions. It has no initial, no semivowel (there are no semivowels in Cantonese), no accent (mid tone) and no final!

As you can see, Shwa Character gait doesn't have as much variety of design as Chinese characters do, but Shwa compensates with more variety of stroke - curves, triangles - and with more varied use of empty space. I hope it will turn out to be as legible.

Choosing Between Gaits

The choice of which gait to use for a language depends partly on phonology and partly on culture.

One case is easy: the criteria listed above for Character gait suffice to describe those languages.

Languages where most syllables are consonant-vowel or consonant-vowel-consonant should use Syllabary gait. However, an agglutinative language like Korean, with CV and CVC syllables, is written in Block gait.

The more heavy matra (syllables with clusters, final consonants or offglides), as well as more phonemes, there is a tipping point where it begins to make more sense to write in Alphabet gait.

Having said that, the first choice should probably be the gait that most resembles the current orthography: alphabets in Europe, North Africa and the Levant, and characters in East and Southeast Asia, with syllabaries almost everywhere else. Here's a map that shows the current situation:


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