In Musa, 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 Musa digraphs used to spell clicks.

In Musa, 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.

Secondary Suffixes

Musa has four suffixes to indicate secondary articulations, where needed: palatalization, velarization and labialization.

A consonant is palatalized when, while the consonant is being articulated elsewhere, the body of the tongue is also raised to form a secondary articulation against the palate, as if you were saying y at the same time as you said another sound. In Irish, these consonants are called slender, in English they're called light, but in the Slavic languages, they're called soft, and that's what I'll call them.

The opposite of palatalization is called velarization. Sometimes, the tongue really is pulled back against the velum, but often, velarized consonants are just retroflex, or pronounced with the largest possible opening under the palate; in other words, exaggerating the contrast with palatalization. These consonants are called broad, dark or hard - I'll use the last term.

We also sometimes round our lips as we pronounce a consonant; this is called labialization, but I'll just call them round consonants. The opposite of round is spread.

All of these secondary articulations often occur under the influence of adjacent vowels. Front vowels      (and their lazy counterparts) tend to soften adjacent consonants, while back vowels       tend to harden them, and rounded vowels      tend to round them. These influences are so normal that we don't write them - they're taken for granted.

But some languages use an unexpected secondary articulation to create a contrast. For example, they might soften a consonant before a back vowel, or harden it before a front vowel. If the secondary articulation is so strong that it moves the primary articulation, then we just write the adjusted letter. For example, Chinese velar consonants g k h become palatal j q x before front medials, and we just write them with palatal letters, not with suffixes. But in many cases, the difference isn't that extreme, so we use suffixes, but only in the exceptional cases.

In Musa, we indicate that a consonant is unexpectedly soft using the semivowel y as as suffix. We write unexpectedly hard consonants using the semivowel yh as a suffix. We write unexpectedly round hard consonants using the semivowel w as a suffix. And when a soft consonant is unexpectedly round, we write the semivowel yw as a suffix.

We don't usually need to use these signs if the following vowel plays the same role. For example, we can omit the soft sign before a front spread vowel, since it's normal that front vowels palatalize the preceding consonant, at least a little. Likewise, we don't need to write the hard sign before a back spread vowel, since those consonants are already velarized. And we can omit the two rounding signs if the vowel is already rounded, unless we need it to indicate hardness or softness.

To show you how these suffixes work, let's look at a complicated case. Russian has only five vowels, but the Cyrillic alphabet uses ten vowel letters to write Russian: five (а э ы о у) that indicate that the preceding consonant is hard, and five (я е и ё ю) that indicate that it's soft. There are also special signs - a hard sign ъ and a soft sign ь - for use when there's no following vowel. But the soft front vowels are much more common than the hard ones, while the hard back vowels are much more common than the soft ones.

When we write Russian in Musa, we don't use a soft suffix to indicate a soft consonant before the vowels и е   - that's assumed. But we assume that other consonants are hard unless they're marked as being soft. Here are some examples:

пат  stalemate пять  five
это  this есть  is
быть  to be бить  to beat
его  his её  her
мюзикл  musical музыка  music

In Russian, soft signs can be omitted after palatal consonants   ч щ, and hard signs can be omitted after retroflex   ж ш - those consonants are presumed to include the suffix. But in Chinese, we never omit those letters after the same consonants, because in Chinese they represent medial semivowels, not secondary suffixes as in Russian.

Adjacent consonants - a consonant cluster like fl or kr - don't need to use a suffix after every consonant: a single suffix or vowel suffices for the whole cluster. However, there are many exceptions where you will have to write a suffix in the middle of the cluster: soft consonants before hard ones, as in только , and hard consonants before soft ones, as in лапки . Here's a line from the Russian anthem, with soft letters highlighted in yellow:

Славься, страна! Мы гордимся тобой!

If the vowel is round, we use the round versions of the suffixes. The Russian word нёс features the soft round suffix before the ё, which both palatalizes and labializes the н.


Neither Musa nor Cyrillic distinguishes between iotation (the insertion of a y sound between consonant and vowel) and palatalization: we write both with ь . Cyrillic sometimes adds a soft sign before a soft vowel to indicate when it needs both the suffix and the semivowel. In such cases, Musa uses a double y:

The hard suffix is less common, but it should be used when a hard consonant precedes a soft letter. For example:

съехать  to move out
объединить  to combine

The w semivowel is used as a suffix to indicate a consonant that is labialized - pronounced with the lips rounded. For example, Cantonese has sounds written kw and gw both in romanization and in Musa, 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 comes after the g as a semivowel. To distinguish these two cases - to distinguish the suffix from the semivowel - Musa has a simple rule: when it's ambiguous, it counts as a suffix. So  would be read as , not gw. So how do we write gw? We insert an invisible Zero-Width Non-Joiner between letter and suffix to prevent them from forming a ligature. We'll talk more about that later.

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

Prenasal Prefix

The letters you met above are all suffixes - they go after the consonant they modify. Musa has one prefix: a letter you write before the consonant it modifies.

We use the prenasal prefix to write prenasalized consonants, which are obstruents with a nasal onset. They occur in many languages, in some of which they even contrast with the cluster of nasal + obstruent, as in the English pronunciations of combo condo congo. But prenasals function as a single consonant - in fact, many of the languages in which they occur have no consonant clusters - and the nasal segment is usually shorter than in the cluster.

Here's the name N'Djamena, the capital of Chad:


Voicing Suffixes

Musa has different letters for voiced, unvoiced and aspirated sounds, but not all of them. When the letter you need is missing, you can use a suffix that modifies the voicing. There are three of them:

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.

Pharyngeal Suffix

Arabic features emphatic consonants: pharyngeal versions of d t s dh (or z) ' h and k, the normal r, plus a special emphatic l as in the word Aḷḷah. Generally, they are phonetically pharyngealized, which means they have a secondary pharyngeal articulation. More important, these consonants have an effect on neighboring sounds. Musa represents them with the Pharyngeal suffix when pharyngeal. In other languages where cognate emphatic consonants are glottalized or expressed in some other way, they're written differently: if they're ejective or implosive, we spell them with those letters, and if they are velarized or labialized, we use the appropriate suffix.

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

Articulation Suffixes

Most languages have only one phoneme for each place and manner of articulation. But some languages use more than one, so we have to make a further distinction. We use the directional semivowels that you met on the Vowels page to distinguish them.

But in the case of coronal sounds, the difference in place is too subtle to hear. 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:

It turns out to be much easier to hear the difference between apical and laminal sounds than between dental and alveolar sounds. The laminal articulations often cover both teeth and gums ("denti-alveolar"), or uncover them separately. And speakers within a language - sometimes the same speaker - vary unconsciously between dental and alveolar. 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 Musa letter. So when it comes to coronal sounds, we use these same suffixes to indicate apical and laminal sounds.

For example, 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 Apical suffix to indicate an apical sound:

The Eastern dialects of Basque have three sibilants, each with a corresponding affricate. We write them using   for the laminal z tz,   for the postalveolar x tx, and   for the apical s ts. Dialects with only two series just don't use the suffix.

Catch as Suffix

At the end of words (and sometimes, syllables), plosives are often not released - we swallow the release and end the word with the airflow stopped. That occurs in many languages, sometimes predictably and sometimes not, but almost never contrastively; that is, it never matters whether you release the stop or not, and so we don't show it in the writing system.

But some languages - for instance Hamer, an Ethiopian language - are claimed to contrast released and unreleased stops at the end of words. In these cases, Musa would use the Catch as a suffix to indicate that the final stop is unreleased.


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 Musa letters with a top and a bottom, Musa 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:

When the bottom of the first letter is also pointy, ligatures have an extra angle to differentiate them from similar letters:

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

And here are the Basque sounds as ligatures:

As you can see, using a ligature dramatically reduces the effort of writing a 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
  k'y Hausa k'yalala
  my Russian medved
  ny Spanish senior
  vy Russian Vyacheslav
  fy Russian Fyodor
  zy Russian zelyonniy
  sy Russian sem'
 ryJapanese Ryukyu
  ly Italian Italia
  gw Cantonese Gwongdung
  kw Cantonese Kwai Tsing
  k'w Hausa k'wabe
  sw English swine
  shw English schwa
  emphatic d Arabic daad
  emphatic t Arabic taa'
  emphatic dh Arabic zaa'
  emphatic z
  emphatic s Arabic saad

There are also special ligatures for prenasalized sounds, with an abbreviated form of the prenasal prefix on top of the stop, affricate or fricative. Here are the same prenasals you met earlier, 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, and if you're using a ligature font, the ligature will appear automatically - you don't have to do anything special. But what if you don't want a ligature, for some reason?

For example, in the Spanish word abierto, the i will be spelled in Musa with a y , since ie is a diphthong - the two sounds are in the same syllable. But in the word abyecto, there is a syllable break between the b and the y, which should be spelled with a Musa Break . This Break will prevent the two from forming a ligature.

There are rare cases when you might not want a ligature, even within a syllable. For example, Proto-Indo European apparently distinguished between the w semivowel as in kweitos (white) and labialized consonants, written in Musa with the same letter as a suffix, as in kʷekʷlos (cycle). To distinguish them in Musa, you could use the ligature for the labialized suffix, and use a stand-alone w for the semivowel. In this case, you have to use a trick: you have to insert a Zero-Width Non-Joiner (ZWNJ, Unicode 200C) between the consonant and the semivowel, to prevent a ligature. The easiest way to do that is with a Musa keyboard: when you type the stem of the semivowel (the key at lower right with a vertical line), hold the key a little longer. That's the trick!

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