Letter Names

When we talk about "the English alphabet", for example, we mean the set of letters needed to write English, in a particular order, with a spelling name for each one: "Ay Bee See ...". The ICAO alphabet has different names for those same letters: "Alfa Bravo Charlie ...".

The Shwa alphabet works a little differently. First of all, there's no definitive list of all possible letters: each language just uses the letters it needs. However, there is a definitive list of shapes, and the two shapes that combine to form a letter - one on top and one on the bottom - are the basis for the letter names :

Shape Name Alone Slender As Top As Bottom
chī Dot Long Mark low vowel high vowel
djō punctuation low rising tone high rising tone
low level tone high level tone
zhū low falling tone high falling tone
shā Long Mark Break glottal,
or suffix
i y murmured nasal palatal
ee Fronting ejective plosive labial
e vw aspirated plosive labiodental or
ae Acute unvoiced plosive pharyngeal
Syllabic Nasal Nasal Vowel nasal
ih (ɨ) yh click
eh (ə) Emphatic implosive uvular
oe Catch voiced plosive dorsal
a Grave breathy plosive epiglottal
er wr rhotic retroflex
u w voiced lateral lateral release
oh Backing ejective fricative hissing sibilant
o h voiced fricative hushing sibilant
ah Yawn unvoiced fricative retroflex sibilant
ue yw unvoiced lateral palatal sibilant

The name of each shape is a nonsense syllable, like Alpha. The name of a letter is then just the name of the top followed by the name of the bottom, with the stress on the second syllable. So for example, the word Shwa would be spelled out loud as "vōmī shāpū zīchī". Note that a high vowel is read as vowel+dot, and a low vowel is read as dot+vowel; accents work the same way.

The last four columns - what each shape means in each position - is the real "alphabet" : what you have to learn to read and write Shwa.

Here is a simplified version of that chart to help you learn the shape names.


Since the names of Shwa letters are two syllables, it makes no sense to abbreviate longer phrases by their initials. Instead, we abbreviate them by their first syllables, as we now do in Russian (Komsomol) or the US Navy (CincLant). So instead of saying you-ess-ay for USA, we'd say you-stay-am. We never make a new word from the initials, either (like URL pronounced url).


We mentioned on the Principles page that spacing is left to the font designer, but there are some basic ideas that are common to all Shwa fonts. Shwa is written on a grid whose cell size corresponds to the size of a Shwa vowel. Tall letters are twice as tall, and fill a domino (a 2x1 rectangle). It's the height of this domino that is the named size of the font; for example, a 12-point font will have cells 6 points x 6 points. A line of Shwa text will come pretty close to the height of a line of text of the same font size in other scripts.

But the letters don't completely fill the cell or domino : there is spacing around them (like CSS margin). The space between letters depends on the font, with half of it in each domino. Adjacent letters are in adjacent cells. Shwa is monospace, with fixed-width letters. The Break and the Long mark have whitespace on both sides.

In Alphabet gait, ascenders and descenders extend half a cell beyond other letters, into the space between lines of text. Latin descenders hang down below the baseline to a similar extent. However, most Latin fonts have ascenders that only go as high as capital letters, while that's the height of normal Shwa letters - Shwa ascenders go higher. The result is that Shwa text needs more space between lines than Latin text. Here's a diagram - the black grid shows the borders between cells, and the gray grid shows the centers of cells :

In Syllabary gait, the kana fill 2x2 cells.

In Character gait, the characters fill 3x3 cells, with double margin all around and a space between characters, but centered on the same centerline as other gaits.

Abjad spacing depends on the font - vowels may be written inside the consonants or above them - but the line of consonants is always two cells tall.

The space between words is always one cell wide, and lines of text are 3 cells apart, center to center, for all gaits except Character gait, which has four cells between centers. Thus, the gap between lines of text is one cell tall.

< Gaits Letter Reference >

© 2002-2018 Shwa shwa@shwa.org 13jan18