Questions

This page attempts to answer some common questions about the Shwa Alphabet.

Artificial (or Constructed) languages have never succeeded

The Shwa Alphabet is not a language ; it is a way to write languages. Many constructed alphabets have succeeded brilliantly, notably Hangul (for writing Korean), the Cyrillic alphabet (used to write Russian and many other languages in north Asia), and Canadian Syllabics (used to write Cree and Inuktitut). To some degree, all writing systems are artificial, and the main distinction between those we consider "constructed" and those we consider "evolved" is the degree of development since the original invention.

Orthography is so closely linked to each language that a universal alphabet is impossible

Few of the world's languages are written using an alphabet that was developed for them - almost all of the world's writing is done with symbols that have been adapted from some other language. Even the exceptions prove this rule : for example, all of the Chinese languages, including zhōngwén, the national language of the People's Republic of China, are written using characters developed for Old Chinese, a very different language.

When people first tried to write English using the Roman alphabet (itself adapted from the Greek alphabet, which was in turn adapted from the Phoenician alphabet, and so on), they lacked letters for many English sounds. For some of these missing letters, they made distinctions between variants, like separating j from i and v and w from u. For others, they adapted letters from Greek (k y z) or the Futhark, the runic predecessor alphabet : these letters include the wynn Ƿ ƿ, the thorn Þ þ, the eth Ð ð and the yogh Ȝ ȝ, which we English-writers (but not the Icelanders) later lost again. For other missing sounds, especially vowels (of which English has many more than the six in the Roman alphabet), they used digraphs, diacritics and rules. The end result, far from being closely adapted to English, is a crazy patchwork of jury-rigged quick fixes.

If we write in Shwa, would everybody spell words according to their own, individual pronunciation?

No, we would all spell to a standard, just as we do now. For example, there is a dialect of English called General American, and American English words would be spelled as they are pronounced in General American, even by people from Boston and Texas who pronounce them differently in their dialects. The British, on the other hand, might spell out Received Pronunciation, their standard dialect, so that Brits and Yanks might spell words differently, as they do now : colour versus color, lorry versus truck, and even bath versus bath.

Of course, a writer could use Shwa to spell out dialect, as did Robert Burns and Langston Hughes. But that would be non-standard spelling, intended to "sound" different in print.

The establishment of these standards is the job of academies like the Academie Française or the Real Academia Española. For languages without academies, like English, we rely on lexicographers to publish reference dictionaries with correct spellings.

Doesn't everybody already use the English alphabet?

Well, no. Only about one quarter of the world writes in a Roman alphabet. Another quarter uses other alphabets, including the widespread Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets and many used for only one or two languages, like Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ge'ez. Another quarter uses Indic abugidas, and another quarter uses scripts based on Chinese characters. Several others, like Korean, use other scripts, and a few, like Japanese, use hybrid writing systems which mix several scripts.

We could imagine extending the Roman alphabet to provide letters for the same set of sounds that Shwa now offers, and in fact the IPA (see below) does that. But one of the problems is that the Roman letters don't even stand for the same sound in the languages that now use them. For example, the letter j represents an affricate dj in English, a sibilant zh in French, a semivowel y in German, and a fricative kh in Spanish. The sound written sh in English is spelled ch in French and Portuguese, x in Catalan and Portuguese, sch in German, sci in Italian, s in Hungarian, ś in Polish, š in Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Croatian, Latvian and Lithuanian, kj in Swedish, and ti in English words like nation! The situation with vowels is even worse, since the Roman alphabet doesn't have very many.

By the way, I'll use the terms alphabet to refer to all writing systems or scripts, Latin alphabet to refer to the 23-letter alphabet used to write the Latin language, English alphabet to refer to the 26-letter alphabet which adds j v w, and Roman alphabet to refer to the 1350-letter extended Latin alphabet included in Unicode. Transcribing a script into the Roman alphabet is called romanization.

Why don't we just write using the International Phonetic Alphabet?

Good question. The IPA, as it's known, is a script for recording phonetic values, itself adapted from the Roman alphabet. Here are the first ten languages from the Home page, written in IPA :

͡ʈʂɤŋ˥wən˧˥  espa'ɲol  'ɪŋglɪʃ  'ɦɪndiː·'ʊrdu  al ˁara'bijja  'baŋla  portu'ges  'ruskij  nihoŋgo  pən'ʤabi

Even though the IPA and Shwa are both phonetic, the IPA is designed to capture the sounds of speech in written form at a level too "low", too close to the sounds themselves, to be useful as a primary orthography. A universal script could be developed based on a broad IPA transcription, but it would share all the flaws of romanizations.

Writing the world's languages in romanization or IPA is an idea in the same spirit as Shwa. I just believe Shwa is a better choice, for one main reason: Shwa and the IPA both have about 160 symbols, but the Shwa letters are all combinations of only 20 symbols. This makes keyboards simpler and gives you a strong hint about the pronunciation of a letter you don't recognize.

Who needs Shwa, and why?

Written language is the key to most of humanity's knowledge, and the recent advent of media that can handle images and sound hasn't changed that. So anything we can do to make reading and writing easier would offer big benefits.

For example, Japanese has probably the worst writing system in the world, with 4 different scripts : kanji, katakana, hiragana and romaji. In addition, most kanji have multiple readings, some of which are Sino-Japanese onyomi, while others are native Japanese kunyomi, so that 日 can be read hi, ka, hibi, nichi or jitsu, for example. There are many more little oddities that must be learned and deciphered when encountered, including nanori, gairaigo, okurigana, furigana, dakuten, yo-on, soku-on, cho-onpu, odoriji, three different systems of romaji and two different notations for numbers. And the whole thing can be written horizontally or vertically!

The Japanese estimate that their students must spend an additional two years of school in relation to American children to acquire the same proficiency in their written language. And yet, the Japanese are among the world's most educated people. Imagine how much more the Japanese could do with two more years of education! There have been many attempts to reform Japanese, but none have had much success. And the English Spelling Society claims that replacing traditional English orthography would save another three years.

Japanese is an extreme example, but almost every writing system has serious flaws :

Do you really think that everybody is going to give up their current scripts, in which so much education has already been invested and in which so much material is already written, for some utopian idea?

Most of what has ever been written was written in the last 30 years, and that is going to continue to be true unless some catastrophe overtakes us. We are still in a very early phase in the history of writing, and now is the time to fix the problems we already know about. Many languages are now changing scripts or adding an auxiliary script, and Shwa has many advantages :


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