Written Spoken Language

You may never have thought about it before, but written language doesn't have to be the written version of spoken language. In fact, the first writing was accounting : someone drew a stylized picture of a cow and then a bunch of tally marks showing how many cows were involved, say ∀|||. We would read that three cows , but a Spaniard would read it tres vacas and a Chinese would read it 三头牛 ( sān tóu niú) - the writing is independent of the language. That's what our numeric and arithmetic notation is like : people with no common language can still understand a written "sentence" like 3² + 4² = 5², even if they can't read it aloud to each other.

Written Chinese is like that, too - the characters represent meanings, not sounds. People from all over the Orient can read the character 月 and know it means "moon" or "month", even though it's pronounced yuè in Chinese, jyut in Cantonese, getsu in Sino-Japanese, tsuki in native Japanese, and wel in Korean. The funny thing is that many Chinese characters include phonetic elements, but the pronunciations have changed so much that the phonetics are useless.

But that's not what Shwa is like. Shwa is a system of phonograms for writing spoken language, with all its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages include the facts that you have to speak the language to read a Shwa sentence, that homophones are written alike, and that differences in accent or dialect can hinder communication. These aren't negligible problems, but they're far outweighed by the advantage of writing a language that you already speak.

Here are two examples of how this principle is applied in practice. The first is from English, where we wonder why the word houses is spelled with two s's, when it has two z sounds. The answer is that English used to consider s and z the same sound - linguists would say the same phoneme. This phoneme was pronounced z between vowels, and s otherwise. The phonemes f and th worked the same way - our lazy mouths didn't bother to unvoice the fricatives between two voiced vowels.

Modern English has letters z (and v, but not dh) and we could write houzez (or even howziz). But we don't, because English spelling is morphophonemic, and we want to form the word houses by appending the plural marker -s to the word house (which does have an s sound). In Shwa, we write both words as they're pronounced, even though the writer has to remember that when the plural is formed, the sound s changes to z in speech as well as in Shwa.

Remember that we all spoke English before we learned to write it, and back then, we had to remember to write the z's in houses with s's, and the v in roofs with an f (but not the v in hooves). So learning Shwa is not so much about learning some new and difficult rules, but more about forgetting old and difficult rules.

In other words, Shwa is designed for foreigners, children and people who used to be children - those who haven't already mastered more cumbersome spellings.

To make this point more clearly, my second example is from a language you probably don't speak, Korean, so you can judge how much easier Shwa is to learn. I don't speak it either, so I'll use made-up words. Korean is agglutinative, so longer words are made by adding modifiers to the ends of shorter words. Because of this, even though many single syllables have their own meanings, words are often many syllables long.

The tricky part is that the sounds in these syllables change depending on their position in the word and the other sounds that surround them. A word formed by combining don + reh + sak + mi might end up being pronounced tol-les-sang-mi. If you don't know Korean, you'd have no way to know that, but if you did speak Korean, for example if you were a child just learning to read, you might wonder why the word tol-les-sang-mi is spelled don-reh-sak-mi. If you focus on having to learn these rules in order to transliterate Hangul to Shwa, you're missing the point, which is the ease of transliterating spoken Korean to Shwa.

The Allophonic Principle

In English, when t starts a word or a stressed syllable, it's pronounced with a little puff of air - it's aspirated . You can feel this by holding your hand up to your mouth and comparing top with stop. In many languages, for instance Thai or the languages of India, those are two different t sounds. And in Shwa, we write the t in top with an aspirated letter, and we say that unvoiced plosives p t ch k in English are all aspirated in those environments. When they occur after an s or at the end of a syllable, they aren't aspirated, and we write them with normal unvoiced letters. But they're both ts!

The phonemic letter is what we think we're saying, while the phonetic sound is what we're actually saying. This unconscious translation we do from a phoneme to one of its allophones is described by English phonology, and we all have to master it, subconsciously, in order to speak correctly and to interpret other speakers when they speak. But that doesn't work for a universal script, since we can't master all the phonologies of all the world's languages. So Shwa is phonetic, not phonemic : we write what we're saying, not what we're thinking. But we don't write at the most detailed phonetic level; instead, we write at the level of the results of these phonological rules, which I call allophonic. And that takes a little getting used to.

It's funny that stress and the consequent reduction of vowels, one of the most important aspects of English pronunciation, isn't shown at all in our current spelling. English words with more than one syllable all have only one stressed vowel, and most of the other vowels are pronounced as eh (ə) or ih (ɨ). For example, the word atom is pronounced aetəm, with the stress on the first vowel. The second vowel is pronounced as an ə because of our phonological rule that reduces unstressed vowels. But in the word atomic, the stress is on the second syllable, and it's the first vowel that's reduced. And every English speaker recognizes, at least subconsciously, that even though the words atom and atomic look alike and one derives from the other, they're pronounced differently.

But in Shwa, the two words look as different as they sound. Shwa's allophonic spelling shows both stress and reduced vowels, along with several other phonological changes. And that's a big help when reading foreign languages. For example, Spaniards pronounce b and v alike : both are pronounced as English b at the beginning of words and as a v with both lips in the middle of words. So Valencia is pronounced Balencia, and haber is pronounced aver (the h is silent), and that's how both are written in Shwa.

Allophonic spelling in Shwa isn't as detailed as, for example, the phonetic spelling of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which can show many fine distinctions that only a trained linguist can hear. For instance, the sound of k as in cape moves slightly forward in your mouth in front of front vowels, so that keep is almost pronounced kyeep. The same sound moves slightly back in your mouth in front of back vowels, so that coop is pronounced at your uvula. But we use the same letter for all three English words, even though Russian distinguishes ky from k, and Arabic distinguishes uvular (or emphatic) q from k. It's sometimes a judgment call, but Shwa represents a broad phonetic spelling, a shallow orthography instead of a deep one - that's why we call it allophonic.

A rule of thumb is to enable a person who doesn't speak a particular language nonetheless to read it aloud well enough to be understood by someone who does.

Vague Vowels, Precise Consonants

Shwa offers many letters for consonants, but only 14 letters for vowels (the IPA has 36!). A Shwa consonant is always pronounced the same way, but the pronunciation of a Shwa vowel letter varies quite a bit, even within a single language.

Part of the reason is that most languages don't distinguish between many vowel sounds. Another part of the reason is that vowel sounds normally vary quite a bit within a language, especially among different speakers or dialects, and it would be difficult to make the correct distinctions consistently.

So, ironically, in the two Swedish words hed and herde, Shwa indicates the difference in the two ds (the second is retroflex), but not the difference in the two es (the second is lower).

Write Once, Read Often

You know the little bird Woodstock in the Peanuts cartoons? When he speaks, it's all just vertical scratches. It's a very simple script to write, but very hard to read.

Shwa, on the other hand, has been developed to be easy to read. That's because text is normally written once but read many times. These days, we write text via keyboard more often than by hand, so it's even less important to make handwriting easy, relative to reading. But Shwa handwriting is also easier than the Roman alphabet, usually half or fewer strokes per word, counting return strokes. Every Shwa letter is written without lifting the pen, and of course Shwa uses fewer letters per word than English.

As you know, we don't read letter by letter - we read entire words at once. And we recognize words by their shapes, including their outlines, black vs white interiors, sharp vs smooth turns, and the general direction of strokes. All those factors have been optimized in Shwa, as we'll discuss below.

Graphical Features

The basis of any symbolic system is how to tell the symbols apart. In Shwa, some features are distinctive, and others aren't.

Tall or Short

The most obvious distinction in Shwa is between tall and short letters. Tall letters are twice as high as they are wide - we say they fit in a domino. Short letters are half that height - they fit in a square. Shwa consonants are all written with tall letters, and vowels are all written with short letters. When a short letter hangs from the top line, we call it high; when it sits on the bottom line, we call it low. There are also tall letters whose top is a simple line sticking up - we call them slender letters. They're used for semivowels, suffixes and glottal consonants.

No matter whether a vowel is high or low, it's still the same letter, like English A and a.

Sharp or Smooth

Another important distinction in Shwa is between sharp angles and smooth curves. Here are some examples :

As you write Shwa by hand, you can get pretty sloppy and still be legible. But don't smooth out your sharp angles - make them each a little pointy. One trick: to sharpen a right angle, make the horizontal leg slightly concave.


Shwa letters are composed of 16 shapes, which you already saw on the keyboard on the Home page :

The three sideways shapes in the center row might sometimes show up as half shapes, turned around or both :

Short letters use only one of these 16 shapes, while tall letters use two of them. In tall letters, the two shapes are connected by a stem. Here's what the shapes look like as both tops and bottoms :

I'll summarize what each shape means on the Letter Names page, but you'll see the regularities yourself as you learn the letters.

Left or Right

As you can see in the chart above, in most cases the stem is written to the right of the top and to the left of the bottom, following the natural left-to-right order of writing. But for six of the shapes, the stem is written on the left side for tops and the right side for bottoms. This helps to distinguish several shapes that might otherwise be mistaken for one another, especially when you're writing carelessly. These six shapes are called lefties:

When both the top and bottom are righties, the stem is a "forward slash" diagonal, from upper right to lower left. When both the top and bottom are lefties, the stem will be a "backslash" diagonal, from upper left to lower right. But if one is a lefty and the other is a righty, the stem will be a vertical line on one side of the letter.

A diagonal stem cuts across some of the shapes - that's not a problem. But the curvy shapes have curvy stems.

Fonts for printed Shwa sometimes truncate these interior stems.

By the way, the closed tops are always drawn starting with the lowest stroke, or the short vertical stroke if the stem is diagonal.

When they're bottoms, the stroke order is reversed.

Up, Down or Sideways

The shapes most easily confused are the triangles and wedges (chevrons). The trick is to pay attention to which way it's pointing : some point up, some point down, and some point sideways.

Ascenders and Descenders

Text in the Roman alphabet, like this page, is a sequence of shapes in the bottom half of the line (the x-height ), with a few ascenders (b d f h i j k l t and capital letters), and even fewer descenders (g j p q y). In contrast, Shwa text fills much more of the vertical space of each line, which makes Shwa look a little like ALL- CAPS. In other words, Roman looks like a solid bar of text with lines added onto it, while Shwa looks like a solid bar of text with spaces cut out of it.

Some Shwa fonts for Alphabet and Syllabary gaits extend the height and/or depth of some tall letters to give words distinctive shapes, forming ascenders and descenders.

Here's an example, the English word from. The f is an ascender, while the m is a descender.

The end result is to give the word a distinctive outline (gray), even before you look at the shapes. Like a key fitting into a lock, that shape helps you recognize the word quickly.

Shwa for the Blind

In 1821, Louis Braille invented the system that still bears his name, in which raised dots are used to encode the letters of the alphabet. Using braille, blind people can read, and there are now electromechanical refreshable braille displays. However, nowadays many blind people use screen readers that read an audible version of the computer screen aloud.

We don't use dots to write Shwa for blind people; we use raised text, in which normal Shwa letters are printed with an ink thick enough to be felt with your fingers. This has two advantages. First, it can be learned by people who become blind later in life, and thus already know how to read printed letters - such people often have trouble learning braille. Second, a single display of raised text can be read by both blind and sighted people, while braille requires a repetition of the text.


What does it mean when we say that high and low vowels are actually the same letter? We mean that they look alike and represent the same sounds, even though they're not in the same vertical position on the page. We call the sequence of letters the one-dimensional or 1D form. When the same sequence is displayed on a screen or a page, the two-dimensional or 2D form is different : one is written high and the other is written low.

All Shwa writing is composed of the same shapes in sequence. However, there are several different ways to lay the shapes out on a page. These are called gaits, a name which is meant to evoke the different ways letters can walk together. The different gaits are described in full on the Gaits page, but here is a brief introduction :

The Home page of this site is a good place to see examples of all four gaits : the names of the languages. The name of the Arabic language, al 'arabîyya, is written in the Abjad gait, the names of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Thai in Character gait, and the names of Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Japanese, Punjabi, Malay, Tamil, Yoruba, Quechua and Swahili in Syllabary gait (the Indian languages in a topline font). All the others are in Alphabet gait.

In all gaits, the writing is from left to right, in rows running downwards. In all gaits, tall letters are taller than short letters, and taller than they're wide. Each gait has its own rules determining which letters are connected, adjacent or spaced, but the one-dimensional sequence of letters is the same in all gaits. All the other key dimensions: stroke weights, letter widths, space widths, line heights and so forth, are left to the typographer. If he does his job well, the result is easy to read and pleasing to the eye.

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