Shwa Lesson 5: Intonation

Now we're ready for one of the most difficult things to learn in Shwa: how to spell intonation. It's not actually that hard; the problem is that no other script records it! Instead, we use boldface, italics, UPPERCASE and other tricks with fonts, we use emoticons (smileys, etc.) and creative punctuation, like :), and we let readers guess what the writer means. To avoid problems, we actually write in a different register than we speak in, using drier language and fewer verbs. And now with textos and chats, it's very common to be misunderstood because of the absence of tone of voice. These are the problems that Shwa spelling for intonation is designed to solve.

What is Intonation?

Intonation is the melody of a clause, the music of our speech. It's not syllable tone or stress, which is the melody of a single syllable - intonation covers the whole clause. Here are some examples from English of different intonations:

0 1 2 3 4 5

We might try to convey those intonations in writing with question marks, exclamation points, and so on, but these tools only convey the speaker's intent, not his actual tone. The Shwa intonation system, on the other hand, is intended to convey the actual musical tone (to a certain level of abstraction, to be sure: we don't write sheet music).


If you listen to someone speaking, and you pay attention to the melody, you'll hear that we break up each little speech into tone groups, each with its own melody. Often, but not always, these tone groups correspond to grammatical clauses. They represent information groups: each departs from information already known to the listener (the given) to add new information. As a rule of thumb, the breaks between tone groups are the places where you expect to find the current punctuation: periods, question marks, commas and so forth.

In Shwa, we mark the end of these groups with a horizontal line - like a level accent but without the vowel - attached to the last word in the phrase, the final. This level accent is high if the tone group ends with a rise, and low if it ends with a fall. In English, a rising tone usually - but not always - indicates that the idea isn't finished: it's a question waiting for an answer, or a phrase waiting for the rest of the sentence. A falling tone usually indicates some form of finality. But we'll talk more about this later.


Within each tone group, there's a nucleus which carries the most prominent pitch change. It's often, but not always, the last stressed syllable in the group, and it always represents the end of the new information. In Shwa, we mark this tonic with slanted accents, attached to the end of the word. Sometimes, there are multiple tonic elements in the same tone group; if that's the case, they're all marked with slanted accents. But most of the time, the tonic falls at the end of the tone group, and Shwa combines the slanted tonic accent with the level tone group accent, as shown in the combined column below.


Tonality and tonicity concern the position of the accents, but the actual contour of the melody is indicated by the shape of the accent. There are five tones in English, plus one variant and two compound tones :

Tone Name Accent on Tonic Accent on Final Combined Accent Sound
1. Low Falling
This is the tone of a simple declarative sentence, one with no additional meaning.
1s. High Falling
This tone is used when you want to add emphasis.
2. High Rising
This tone represents a query, a challenge, or a response.
3. Level Rising
This tone is uncommitted: tentative, mildly agreeing, or simply incomplete, with the rest to follow.
4. Fall Rising
This tone adds a feature of reservation, as if there were a but involved somewhere.
5. Rise Falling
This tone indicates surprise that the sentence is true.
13. Fall + Level Rising
This tone adds a secondary focus.
53. Rise Falling + Level Rising
This tone adds a secondary focus.

You'll notice that the combined accents for the Low Falling and Level Rising tones are simply the level accents. In other words, in the two most common cases we simply omit the accent on the tonic.

Complicated! But after all, it isn't much more complicated than learning 8 new letters. Let's look at some examples. I've added Shwa punctuation to the English, so you can see how it works.

(From Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories)

In the beginning of years when the world was so new and all, and the Animals were just beginning to work for Man, there was a Camel, and he lived in the middle of a Howling Desert because he did not want to work; and besides, he was a Howler himself. So he ate sticks and thorns and tamarisks and milkweed and prickles, most 'scruciating idle; and when anybody spoke to him he said Humph!.

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