More Voices

The letters you met on the last page enable us to write sounds with manners and places of articulation beyond what we can do with the basic letters, but we can also write sounds with different voices. I mentioned voice above to distinguish between pairs of letters like p-b, t-d, k-g, f- v, and s-z in English, but that's only part of the story. Here's the unabridged version.

The difference between t and d in English is that the vocal cords vibrate as you say voiced d, while for aspirated t they don't start vibrating until a few milliseconds after the plosive release. English actually has a third sound in this family : the unvoiced and unaspirated t in words like stop : if you put your hand over your mouth, you can feel a puff of air after tear that you don't feel after steer or deer. Linguists call that middle sound tenuis, since the voice onset and the plosive release occur together. This tenuis t is the sound of French t and Chinese d.

But timing isn't the end of it. When we pronounce voiced d, our vocal cords are vibrating modally, at their optimum frequency. But in some languages, there are sounds with the vocal cords looser or tighter. Looser lax phonation is called breathy voice or murmur, and tighter tense phonation is called creaky voice. There are even half-lax and half-tense phonations called slack voice and stiff voice, respectively : they contrast with each other in Javanese. There are also different phonations produced by modifying the vocal tract above the glottis, for instance harsh and hollow voice.

All these sounds work by modifying the airstream we squeeze out of our lungs as we talk. But there are also three types of sounds made by using a different airstream mechanism. Some languages feature ejective sounds, which are made by closing the glottis and raising the air pressure in the mouth so as to produce a very strong release. The opposite are implosive sounds, which are made by lowering the pressure in the mouth before release. The third type is clicks, which involve two closures in your mouth - we'll discuss them later.

Let me array all that variety on a spectrum from least breathy (closed) to most breathy (open):

Shwa doesn't try to distinguish these all individually. Shwa has letters for the blue ones, and the others are mapped to the closest match with no conflict. So for instance, Thai has stiff consonants in addition to tenuis and aspirated consonants, but they're simply written with the voiced letters.

Many languages need only voiced and unvoiced :

The Thai language uses three phonations : voiced sounds for which we use the basic voiced letters, unvoiced sounds for which we use the basic unvoiced letters, and aspirated sounds for which we use basic unvoiced letters with an extra line hanging off their noses. Ancient Greek also had voiced β δ γ, unvoiced π τ κ, and aspirated φ θ χ (as well as affricated ψ ζ ξ), although two of those series now represent fricatives in Modern Greek.

In English and Scandinavian languages, the unvoiced plosives p t ch k are aspirated at the beginning of words and stressed syllables, and we write them with the aspirated letters. When these sounds occur medially, they often become pre-aspirated, but Shwa regards pre-aspirated sounds as consonant clusters with an initial h.

Most of the Indo-Aryan languages have a fourth phonation : a breathy voice which they consider to be the aspirated version of a voiced consonant. Alternatively, some languages have voiced consonants with a breathy release. To represent these sounds, Shwa uses basic voiced letters with an extra line hanging off their noses :

Breathy sonorants are said to be murmured, since the breathiness is held for the whole sound, not just the release. Murmured nasals are written with the top pointed downwards, and these letters are also used for voiceless nasals in those languages that need them.

The Shwa letters for murmured rhotics, as occur in some Indo-Aryan languages, use the same top as the unvoiced lateral fricatives you met on the last page :

As I mentioned on the last page, murmured laterals can be written with the same letters as unvoiced lateral fricatives. But here's a new letter, for a murmured labiodental approximant, as found in Marathi:

Implosives are written using voiced letters inverted to form an open box :

Ejectives are written using unvoiced letters inverted to point downwards. We also use these letters for voiceless implosives, as in Igbo, and for other fortis phonations.

For example, here are the nine affricates of Tlingit:

Fricatives, including sibilants, can also be ejective, aspirated or fortis :

To show you how these letters work in practice, let's consider the example of Sindhi, an Indo-Aryan language most of whose 35 million speakers live in the Pakistani province of Sindh and neighboring India. Sindhi has 46 distinct consonants, so it's a particularly complicated example. It's currently written in both the Arabic abjad and the Devanagari abugida (the script in which Hindi is also written), both of which have had to be modified for Sindhi.

In Sindhi, as in most Indo-Aryan languages, there are five articulatory positions: labial, dental, retroflex, palatal and velar. But I chose Sindhi as an example because it also has five different plosives, differing in phonation, for each of the five articulatory positions mentioned above. The top line of the following chart shows all five of the labial plosives : aspirated, unvoiced, breathy, voiced and implosive. The bottom line shows all eight nasals.

It's complicated, but remember that Sindhi already has different letters for all these sounds in both the Arabic and Devanagari scripts, and they're much less straightforward than the Shwa versions - here's the Arabic:

Compare the letters for the last row with the Shwa, below. Which would you rather learn, and write?


Clicks are produced by trapping air between two closures and lowering the tongue to produce a relative vacuum - in other words, by sucking (with your mouth, not your lungs). This vacuum is then released by opening the forward closure first, then the rear one is used to modify the air rushing by.

The forward closure - called the release - can be bilabial, dental, alveolar (retroflex, post-alveolar, apical or sub-apical), palatal (palato-alveolar, laminal) or lateral (alveolar, dental or palatal). The rear closure - called the manner - is always velar, and can vary in phonation across the entire range described above, plus nasal and even prenasal. The click can also begin a consonant cluster, for instance followed by a glottal stop or even an ejective.

Click consonants are most common in the Khoisan languages of southern Africa, some of which have over 50 different clicks, but their use has spread to neighboring Bantu languages, for example Xhosa and Zulu, the two most widely-spoken non-European languages in South Africa. We'll use them as an example of how Shwa handles clicks.

Clicks are written in Shwa as a digraph : the first letter indicates the release, and the second indicates the manner. For the releases, Shwa uses a square top :

The second letter in a click digraph is the manner, which is always velar. Here are some examples :

To illustrate the Shwa click notation in practice, here are the 15 clicks from Xhosa and Zulu, along with their traditional Roman orthography :


Here's the chart from the last page, with clicks, ejectives, implosives, aspirated, breathy and murmured letters added. I also included a space, three accents, and some suffixes you haven't met yet.

That's a total of 164 letters, and there are still others that could be constructed. But they're all just combinations of the 16 basic shapes you saw on the first page - not that hard! Each language uses only the ones it needs; English needs only 40 letters. But if you want to write Sindhi or Xhosa, Shwa has the letters you need.

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