More Positions

On the previous pages, you met 56 basic letters. But there are many more than 56 sounds in all the world's languages; many single languages have more sounds than that! To write all the sounds in most of the world's languages, Shwa uses three tricks:

In general, these tricks are only used where needed, in other words if the language being written has two sounds that would otherwise be written with the same Shwa letter. For example in English, the k in keel and the c in cool are written with the same Shwa letter - there's no ambiguity even though they're pronounced slightly differently. But in Arabic, those are two different sounds (written with the letters ك kāf and ق qāf in Arabic), and so Shwa has a different letter for qāf.

On this page, I'll show you some new tops and bottoms and a few more unusual letters. I'll show you the other tricks on the following pages.

In English, we only use three places of articulation, and most languages use the same three:

But there are other places of articulation used in many languages, and Shwa has bottoms for them:

Labio-dental and Labial-velar Letters

On the last page, you met the bilabial fricatives bh and ph, which are made by whistling between your two lips. They're relatively rare, although for example bh occurs in Spanish and ph in Japanese. More languages have, instead, labio-dental v and f, made by whistling between your upper teeth and lower lip. Ewe (Èʋegbe), a language of Ghana and Togo, has both sets: bilabial β and Φ and labio-dental v and f. In Shwa, we write labio-dental sounds with a wedge at the bottom:

Shwa also has a letter for a labiodental approximant, a sound which appears in several languages; it's written ʋ in IPA . To pronounce it, put your mouth in position to say v, but say w instead. I'll transcribe it as vw.

These wedged letters are also used for labial-velar sounds, as found in many West African languages : kp and gb (as in the name of the Nigerian language Igbo) and nasal ŋm. They're not clusters - the two sounds are pronounced simultaneously.

There are also labial sounds written with the rhotic top, even though they're not rhotic. Kom has a bilabial trill, not to be confused with the labiodental flap of Mangbetu :

Retroflex Letters

The retroflex letters use the bottoms from the er vowel. They're actually quite common, for example used in almost all of the languages of India. For retroflex sounds, the tongue should be flat, concave or even curled upwards, to contrast with the palatal sounds, for which the tongue is pushed upwards to fill the mouth. There are retroflex versions of the plosives d t and sonorants n l.

The sharp retroflex bottom is used for the common retroflex flap, while the rare retroflex trill uses a smooth retroflex bottom:

Retroflex affricates and sibilants use a rounder bottom (as do almost all affricates and sibilants).

That last letter also spells the northern pronunciation of Swedish sj.

On the Consonants page, I mentioned that letters for affricates replace stop+sibilant, even across morphemes; cat's and cats are spelled alike. But in cases where they are pronounced differently, we write them differently:

Palatal Letters

Many Romance languages have palatal ns, as in Italian Spagna, French Espagne, Catalan Espanya, Spanish España and Portuguese Espanha. In Shwa, those palatal ns are written using a letter with the nasal triangle on top and the bottom from a y :

Italian, Portuguese and Catalan also still have the palatal ly (spelled as gl, lh and ll), although this sound has disappeared from French and from most Spanish dialects leaving just the semivowel y. (Many textbooks describe this sound as being the one from English million, but that's not correct : it's a y with your tongue pressed firmly against the roof of your mouth.)

Those two sounds contrast in Italian:

In German, when the dorsal fricative kh (written ch) follows a front vowel, it becomes palatal, as in the words ich and nicht, but not Nacht. This is called ich-Laut :

Hungarian has unusual palatal plosives, ty and gy. Czech spells them t' and d', or more commonly t and d before i.

(Alveolo-)palatal affricates and sibilants use a rounder bottom (as do almost all affricates and sibilants). These letters for affricates are used whether the release is sibilant or just fricative.

A note on the use of retroflex and palatal sibilants: when a language has only two series, like English z s ("hissing") and zh sh ("hushing"), then they can be written   and   without worrying too much about the exact articulation of the back series. But when a language has three series, the two back series usually contrast retroflex and palatal. We would write   for the "hissing" series,   for the "rustling" series, and   for the "humming" series. The corresponding affricates work the same way.

In Chinese, the velar plosives g and k have softened to palatal affricates (pinyin j q) before front i ue y and yw, and the velar fricative kh (pinyin h) has become a palatal sibilant (pinyin x), and we write all three of them with palatal letters. These contrast with both hissing dz ts s (pinyin z c s) and retroflex dj ch sh (pinyin zh ch sh) :

Polish and several other Slavic languages also contrast three series of affricates/sibilants. The humming series is soft, so we might represent it by adding the palatal suffix  to the hissing series, and use the hushing letters for the rustling series. But we can write both rustling and humming with their own bottoms:

The Eastern dialects of Basque have three sibilants, each with a corresponding affricate. We write them using   for the laminal z tz,   for the palatal x tx, and   for the apical s ts. Dialects with only two series can use   for the rearmost.

Here's a full list of palatal letters :

Uvular Letters

At the top of the page, you met the Arabic ق qāf, a uvular sound. The Quechua languages also distinguish a uvular q from a velar k. Shwa has five other uvular letters as well, used for sounds further back in your mouth than velar. Here they all are :

The uvular r is also known as a guttural r, and its exact pronunciation varies to include unvoiced allophones and even uvular fricatives. But they're still written as rhotics when used as the r sound, as in French, German, Danish and Portuguese.

Radical Letters

There are also sounds articulated between your uvula and your glottis, deep in your throat, like the sounds of the Arabic letters ع ayn and ح heh.

There are several letters in IPA for sounds that don't have separate letters in Shwa. We don't distinguish between pharyngeal and epiglottal sounds, nor between voiced and voiceless epiglottal trills, nor between epiglottal trills and flaps. We would write an epiglottal affricate or ejective as a stop, and a pharyngeal approximant with the "guttural" r.

Lateral Letters

Shwa has four letters for lateral fricatives, as occur in Welsh, Zulu, Navajo and Tlingit, for example. The hushing series can be used for all postalveolar fricatives, as for example in Archi, Dahalo and Toda. The unvoiced lateral fricatives can also be used for a voiceless lateral approximant, as in Tibetan, or murmured lateral approximants as in Gujarati, Nepali and Marathi.

The lateral circle is used as a bottom to indicate a lateral release, as in the unvoiced lateral affricate tl (from Navajo and Tlingit), the voiced lateral affricate dlz (from Oowekyala) and the lateral flap (from Japanese).


That's 46 additional letters, for a total of 102. Here's what you've seen so far (with transcriptions in IPA):

< Consonants More Voices >

© 2002-2018 Shwa 20jun18