In Shwa, we use the term suffix to refer to the second letter of a digraph, a combination of two letters that represents a single sound. We're used to digraphs from English, where th, ch, sh and ng are all used to represent missing letters. And you've already met the Shwa digraphs used to spell clicks.

In Shwa, except for clicks, the second letter of a digraph can only be a slender letter - one with a pointy top. You've already met most of them as semivowels - we'll cover them first. As suffixes, they represent secondary articulations.

Nasal Suffix

You already met the nasal suffix on the Vowels page, where it was shown used to write nasal vowels. It can also be used to write nasalized consonants, as occur in several African languages.

Palatal Suffix

The semivowel y is used as a suffix to indicate a palatalized consonant, which is not the same as a palatal consonant. A consonant is palatalized when, while the consonant is being articulated elsewhere, the body of the tongue is also coming up to form a secondary articulation against the palate, as if you were saying y at the same time as you said another sound.

For instance, the Gaelic and Slavic languages show this kind of secondary palatalization. These languages contrast palatalized "soft", "slender" or "light" consonants with velarized "hard", "broad" or "dark" consonants. In Russian, which has lots of palatalized consonants and usually marks them on the following vowel, there is a special soft sign, the ь мягкий знак, to indicate that the preceding consonant is palatalized. For example, a soft t' at the end of most Russian verbs indicates the infinitive, while the hard t indicates the 3rd person singular form of the present tense :

There's no difference in Shwa between iotation (the insertion of a y sound between consonant and vowel) and palatalization. Russian sometimes adds a soft sign before a soft vowel to indicate when it needs both the suffix and the semivowel. In such cases, Shwa uses a double y:

Velar Suffix

The yh semivowel is used as a suffix to indicate a consonant that is pronounced with secondary velarization . However, in languages like Russian and Irish that contrast velarized and palatalized consonants, the velar suffix is rarely needed, since consonants are velar by default.

Russian, Polish and some other Slavic languages don't even need the velar suffix before i, because they use the hard ih in Shwa, written as ы in the Cyrillic alphabet and y in the Roman alphabet.

Labial Suffix

The w semivowel is used as a suffix to indicate a consonant that is pronounced with the lips rounded. For example, Cantonese has sounds written kw and gw both in romanization and in Shwa, as in the name of the province 廣東 gwóngdūng :

Note that the Chinese version of the same name, 广东 guăngdōng, is also written with the w semivowel, but the w sound continues after the g as a semivowel. That's the kind of distinction that's interesting for phoneticists but not for us.

This suffix is also used for the back flat sounds of Berber, and for the whistled sibilants of Shona.

Labiopalatal Suffix

If a consonant needs both the Palatal suffix and the Labial suffix, we use the yw semivowel as an Labiopalatal suffix:

For example, the Russian word нёс features the Labiopalatal suffix before the ё , which both palatalizes and labializes the н.


Labiodental Suffix

Swedish uses the vw letter as a suffix to write its unusual ɧ sj-ljudet.


This suffix is also used to indicate a linguo-labial sound, in which the tongue slides along the upper lip.

Emphatic Suffix

Arabic features six emphatic consonants : emphatic versions of d t s dh (or z) and k, plus a special emphatic l in the word Aḷḷah. In most dialects, they are phonetically pharyngealized, which means they have a secondary pharyngeal articulation. However, in related Semitic languages, they may be velarized, ejective or unadorned. More important, these consonants (plus r, but excluding l) have an effect on neighboring sounds.

Shwa represents this emphasis with the Emphatic suffix, while leaving the exact phonetic realization underspecified. Since this feature affects neighboring vowels, the use of a suffix facilitates the mental regrouping of the suffix with the vowel : the suffix on the consonant becomes an on-glide to the vowel.

These letters are also used for the front flat sounds of Berber, and for other sounds involving the back of the throat.

For example, isiZulu is the most spoken African language in South Africa, with about 10 million speakers. It features ejective, aspirated, and "implosive" stops (which are written with normal voiced letters). But it also features "depressor" versions of the voiced stops, which make the following vowel breathy and change its tone. Shwa writes these depressor consonants with a following emphatic suffix. As with emphatic consonants in Arabic, the use of a suffix here facilitates the regrouping of the suffix with the vowel as a voice- and tone-changing on-glide.

Acute and Grave Suffixes

The letters and suffixes you've met suffice to represent almost all of the sounds of the world's languages, but not 100% of them. There remain a few odd quirks that can't be written with what we've already introduced. For them, we have a general mechanism for expanding the alphabet: two more suffixes. They are arbitrarily called the Acute and Grave suffixes, although the terms Sharp ♯ and Flat ♭ (as in music) are English synonyms.

For example, you've already met the Shwa letters for coronal sounds like n t ts s th, used for most of the languages of the world. They're all pronounced with the tongue against the teeth or gums. But if we examine the details, this category includes quite a variety of sounds. A Californian th is interdental, while a British th is denti-alveolar, but neither can hear the difference, and both are written with the same Shwa letter. The possible articulations include:

Most languages use only one of these articulations, or only one per manner of articulation, and those languages don't need these suffixes. But some languages use more than one articulation, so we have to make a further distinction. We use the Acute or Sharp suffix to indicate an apical sound, and the Grave or Flat suffix to indicate a laminal sound.

The Dravidian languages of southern India used to distinguish between laminal dental and apical alveolar consonants, but this distinction has been lost except for the letters t n in Malayalam and Tamil, and there only when they are geminate (doubled). Because the apicals are rare and only occur geminate, the laminals are written without a suffix. But we use the Acute or Sharp suffix to indicate an apical sound - just one suffix suffices for both letters :

An Australian language called Eastern Arrente makes the same apical/laminal distinction for palato-alveolar (hushing) sounds, as does the Dravidian language Toda, while the NW Caucasian language Ubykh have five coronal sibilants.

In general, almost any distinction you can imagine is considered contrastive by some language among the 7000+ spoken around the world. The Acute and Grave suffixes can be used to spell those that can't be spelled using normal Shwa letters - they're tricks to cheat with.

Break with Suffixes

The Break can be used to show that a following letter is not a suffix. For example, in Russian, it's used when the letter y follows a hard consonant. This is the same role played in Russian by the hard sign, the ъ твёрдый знак.


Here are all the slender letters :


Some fonts combine suffixes (but not other slender letters) with the preceding letters to form a new letter, called a ligature. That's especially true in fonts for languages like Russian or Arabic that have a whole series of letters with the same suffix. We used to have ligatures in English, too, and most of you have seen the glyphs æ and œ at some point; they represent the combinations ae and oe as one letter. In many fonts, the letters ff and fi are also ligatures: they're written connected.

Unlike normal Shwa letters with a top and a bottom, Shwa ligatures have three shapes: a top, middle (the bottom of the first letter) and a new bottom consisting of the bottom of the suffix. The top of the suffix is always pointy, so we don't need to include that.

In the 1D form, the suffix is a separate letter. But in the 2D form, the three shapes of a ligature are all squeezed into the same space as a normal letter. Here are the same emphatic letters you met above, this time as ligatures:

And here are the apical geminates from Malayalam, this time written out as geminated ligatures:

As you can see above, when the bottom of the first letter is also pointy, we write a small vertical line in mid-ligature, then connect both top and suffix.

Here are some of the most common ligatures :

by Russian byeliy
py Russian Pyotr
dy Russian gdye
ty Russian tyopliy
gy Japanese gyoza
ky Japanese Kyoto
my Russian medved
ny Spanish senior
vy Russian Vyacheslav
fy Russian Fyodor
zy Russian zelyonniy
sy Russian sem'
ryJapanese Ryukyu
hy Japanese Hyogo
ly Italian Italia
gw Cantonese Gwongdung
kw Cantonese Kwai Tsing
sw English swine
shw German Schwein
emphatic d Arabic daad
emphatic t Arabic taa'
emphatic dh Arabic zaa'
emphatic z
emphatic s Arabic saad
emphatic k Arabic qaaf
emphatic l Arabic Allah

There are also special ligatures for prenasalized sounds, with an abbreviated form of the nasal consonant on top of the homorganic stop, affricate or fricative. Here are the same prenasals you met at the top of the page, this time as ligatures :

Finally, there are ligatures for clicks, with the velar bottom of the manner combined into the square top of the release. Here are the clicks from the previous page, this time as ligatures :

A ligature can be used anywhere you would have written the two letters.

Contraction, Elision, Liaison and Crasis

In many languages, words change their pronunciations depending on the context. For example, the word a is pronounced an when the following word starts with a vowel: a pear, but an apple. In this case, we spell the difference, too, but the word the also changes its pronunciation, to thee, and we don't indicate that in the Latin spelling. But in Shwa, we spell that difference, too.

In French, many words have lost their final consonants, but these consonants are still spelled, and they are pronounced when the following word is a vowel. For example, the first s in les femmes is silent, but it's pronounced in les hommes (where the h is silent!). In Shwa, we would spell the word as it's pronounced, with no s in the first case.

These are both examples of liaison: the two words are still kept separate. In a crasis, however, they become a single word, and we use neither a space nor an apostrophe. In the first example below, you can see both a crasis (de + les) and liaison (the s being pronounced).

Here are some familiar crases from English :

A crasis often arises as a result of contraction: the loss of a sound in one of the words, as in the words le and el in French and Catalan:

Sometimes, you'll see a whole series of crases, elisions, liaisons and contractions. In the following example from French, the original ne i ã ends up pronounced nyan :

< More Voices Accents >

© 2002-2017 Shwa 13may17