The Shwa Alphabet

The links at left list many of the world's major languages, first in their current alphabet, and then in the Shwa Alphabet. How many of them can you read, or even identify?

The Shwa Alphabet is another way of writing English and all these other languages, an alternative to this Roman alphabet and the many other scripts of the world. Why would we want another alphabet, when we already have this one? There are three main reasons:
      1. because the Shwa Alphabet is a better alphabet for English than the Roman alphabet is,
      2. because Shwa is a universal alphabet that can be used to write all of the world's languages, and
      3. because Shwa is easier to learn and to use than other alphabets.

I don't have to explain to you that English spelling is crazy - you learned that in school. You had to learn that why, rye, sigh, buy, tie & hi all rhyme, but that rough, cough, though, through & bough don't. And you probably have a dictionary (with pronunciation guide) or a spell checker nearby.

Having crazy spelling not only makes it harder for us all to learn to read and write while growing up, but it also makes it harder for speakers of foreign languages to learn English and for us to learn their languages. How are we supposed to know that the Champs Elysées is pronounced shawn zayleezay?

But why don't we just fix English spelling, keeping our familiar alphabet? Well, many people have tried to do that, but it turns out that the results aren't as familiar as you'd think. Here are some examples:

Wuns upon a midnít dréry, wíl í ponderd wék and wéry
Over meny a kwaynt and kyuriyhs vahlyum ev forgahtn lor,
Wiil ii nahdid, nirlee naping, sudnlee ther caam u taping,
Az ov səmwən jentli raping, raping at may tsheymbər door
"'Tiz sum viziter", ie muterd, "taping at mie chaember dor
- oenlee dhis and nuthing mor."

And here's my sincere attempt to fix the Latin alphabet, not just for English, but for all the European languages. I think you'll see that by the time you've learned how to spell and read familiar words all over again, you might as well learn a new alphabet, especially if it's better.

The Shwa Alphabet isn't the first new alphabet for English, either. One of the best is the Shavian alphabet (named after George Bernard Shaw), which looks like this:

The Shavian Alphabet

But the Shwa Alphabet is a universal alphabet, designed to be shared by many languages. And it has only 20 basic shapes (at right), so it's easy to learn and makes keyboards much less complicated than, for instance, the one on your phone.

Those shapes pair up to form lots of letters, but each language will only use the ones it needs. For instance, English uses only 40 of the letters. Each letter might be pronounced slightly differently for different languages - an English t sounds subtly different from a Hindi t - but we don't really care: each language just uses the best letter for each of its sounds.

The Shwa Alphabet is also featural: letters share features with their sounds. For example, rounded vowels are round, and closed vowels are closed. Sounds made in the front of the mouth face towards the front (left), and sharp sounds are sharp letters. As a result, letters that sound alike look alike.

As you can see above, the Shwa Alphabet can also be written in several different gaits: as an alphabet, as cursive script, as a syllabary or as characters.This helps Shwa look familiar all over the world, and adapts it to the needs of each language. But all these gaits still use the same letters, so everybody can read it.

For those of you now thinking "This will never work, because ...", I offer answers to some of the questions I've heard. For those of you who are simply curious, open-minded or returning to this page with their questions answered, why not take a quick look at Shwa?


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Want to help?
We're looking for volunteers who think Shwa is a great idea, and want to help us advance it. In particular, we're looking for four types of help:
  1. We're looking for people to translate a page into their language for the Shwa website.
  2. We're looking for linguists, language teachers or others with credentials to offer corrections or suggestions on Shwa and to offer their endorsement.
  3. We're looking for tech people who can help us with font and keyboard issues.
  4. We're looking for connections at Google, Apple, and Microsoft, in the hope of getting them to include support for Shwa in their operating systems.
If you're interested, please email volunteers@shwa.org, or visit us on Facebook

© 2002-2017 Shwa shwa@shwa.org 13dec17