Vowels

The Shwa script includes 12 vowels and two suffixes used with vowels : all the other letters are consonants, including some semivowels. We'll present the vowels and semivowels on this page along with a few other letters, and the other consonants on the following pages, so you can see how it works not just for English but for all the other languages. We'll use some technical terms (in italics), but you don't have to remember them.

Vowels

Vowels differ from each other in five main parameters :

We'll discuss the last two traits further below. For now, let's talk about the first three.

Eleven of the twelve Shwa vowel letters fit into a neat little grid based on those parameters. Each letter represents any vowel sound in that range of your mouth - the actual pronunciation varies between languages. Here they are, along with my transcription and the IPA symbols for the sounds in that range (at right is a chart of IPA vowels) :

As you can see, Shwa is much simpler : 11 vowels instead of 28. Shwa cares only about the roles of each vowel in its language, not the exact pronunciation. There's even some overlap between the ranges : a sound may be written with one Shwa letter in one language, and a very similar sound may be written with another letter in a different language.

In the Shwa grid, the first two columns are front vowels and the last two are back vowels. Within each of those groups, the lefthand column is spread (unrounded), while the righthand column is rounded. Front rounded vowels are usually pronounced with the lips compressed, while the back rounded vowels are usually pronounced with the lips protruded. There are no dedicated letters for central vowels, but the inner columns are usually more central than the outer ones.

Within each column there are closed, mid and open vowels. The front rounded column is missing its open vowel - no language has an open front rounded vowel, and in fact it's hard to round your lips when your mouth is open. For the other open vowels, the roundedness isn't so important - the contrast is mostly front, central and back. The a sound in most languages is fairly central, and it's written in Shwa with the a vowel. If there's a contrasting vowel further back in the mouth, it's written with the ah vowel, while a contrasting vowel in the front of the mouth is written with the ae vowel. And the central vowel is often much more open than the others.

Three of these vowels don't occur in English, but they aren't difficult to pronounce :

The sound in the middle of the IPA chart - the upside-down e - is called schwa (that was one of the inspirations for the name Shwa). It's pronounced with your mouth completely relaxed, and often represents any lazy sound more than a specific mid back spread vowel.

The ih letter is also used for vowels that have been reduced almost to zero. For instance, we use it in English for the vowel in the last syllable of bottle or button. In Chinese, it's used for the apical sounds in si and shi (which used to be written sz and shr in the Yale romanization). Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Sanskrit have syllables "without vowels", in which l or r plays the role of vowel. Shwa spells them using the ih letter, followed by the consonant. The long versions of these, as in Slovak and Sanskrit, use a Long mark (which you'll meet below).

The twelfth Shwa vowel letter is a rhotic version of the schwa, transcribed er. It's rare, but two languages in which it occurs - Chinese and English - are the world's most spoken languages! This letter is also used for the front open rounded vowel missing from the chart above.

Here are the twelve Shwa vowels, with some examples (from languages without long vowels) :

ShwaIPATranscriptionEnglish ExamplesFrenchSpanishItalianOthers
i ɪi itchy, bit, kit, ship, rip, dim, spirit si piso pira
e ɛe elbow, bet, dress, step, ebb, hem, terror ses peso pera
ɛ æaeapple, bat, trap, bad, cab, ham, arrow
American bath, staff, clasp, dance
sait perla
y ʏue su Cantonese yu, Turkish ü
ø œoe ceux Cantonese eu, Turkish ö
ɚerbutter, early, nurse, hurt, term, work ce Chinese èr
ɨ ɯihbottom, bottle Turkish ı, Russian ы, Polish y, Romanian î
ə ɐehbutton, onion, strut, cub, rub, hum, the Romanian ä
aa almond, palm, calm, bra, father,
American lot, stop, rob, swan
British bath, staff, clasp, dance
sa paso parla
u ʊu cookie, book, foot, full, look, could sous pujo buco
o ɔo awful, bought, thought, taut, hawk, broad,
American cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin
saut poso bocca
ɔ ɑahBritish otter, bother, lot, stop, rob, swan,
cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin
sot bosco

All the shapes are written from left to right, and the closed ones are written starting at the top and continuing in a counterclockwise direction. Vowels are normally written low, but are written high when they're stressed or carry a high tone.

Mid Vowels

French, Catalan, Italian and Portuguese all distinguish between closed-mid and open-mid vowels, as do most of the Germanic languages (which we'll discuss below) :

In Shwa, the open-mid sounds on the right are written with open letters. Be careful - English speakers may hear these as the sounds in English bet and bought, which are written with mid letters.

An open-mid front rounded œ vowel is very rare : as far as I know, it only contrasts with its closed-mid sister in French and before nasals in Danish, and it's even being lost in those two languages, where few speakers make distinctions between French jeûne and jeune, or between Danish synds and søns. We also use it to spell the Dutch diphthong now spelled ui, and in some other Germanic languages. When you do need to write the distinction, write the open-mid vowel with the er letter.

Nasal Vowels

Polish, Portuguese and French, for example, have nasal vowels. In Shwa, these are written by appending a Nasal Suffix to the corresponding oral vowel. The Nasal Suffix is a triangle with the point upwards, like your nose, in contrast to i, which points downwards like your chin. In Alphabetic gait, it's written high after high vowels, and low after low vowels.

Here are some examples from French, contrasted with the oral vowel alone and the oral vowel followed by the letter n :

When needed, I'll transcribe the Nasal suffix as a tilde ~, as in ã õ.

Syllabic Nasals

The Nasal suffix isn't a real vowel, but we sometimes use it that way.

For example, in Cantonese and Fukienese, there are syllabic nasals as in m and ng. They are written with the Nasal suffix as a vowel, written after the consonant.

Japanese and Yoruba also have syllabic nasals, also written with the Nasal suffix as a vowel.

Semivowels

A semivowel is a vowel being used as a consonant. The four high vowels and the er vowel all have corresponding semivowels, but not all of them are used in English. Here they are :

In addition, Shwa has three glides that represent directions rather than positions:

Here are four of these semivowels in use in Bengali:

অয়ি  ai অয়ে  ae অয়ো  ao অয়ু  au

The central vowel of a syllable is never written with a semivowel, but onglides and offglides always are, so that there's only one vowel for each syllable. For example, the Chinese word 水 shŭi (water) is written as shwĕy, not shuĕi, shuĕy or shwĕi. In Shwa, we identify syllables by their central vowels, not by their boundaries. When we write a word like English bottle, we recognize that the second syllable is centered on the reduced vowel ih, but it's not important to decide whether the t sound is the end of the first syllable, the beginning of the second syllable, or both.

Diphthongs

Many languages feature diphthongs, which are vowels that move as they are pronounced. In Shwa, as in most scripts, they're written using letters for the starting and ending positions. But in Shwa, only one of these two letters is a vowel - the other is a semivowel.

If the ending position is more prominent, they're called rising diphthongs, and we write them with a semivowel onglide before the vowel. Spanish has a full set :

RisingExample
yeie as in tierra
yaia as in diablo
yoio as in rioja
yuiu as in viuda
wouo as in cuota
waua as in cuadro
weue as in fuego
wiui as in buitre

If the starting position is more prominent, they're called falling diphthongs, and we write them with a semivowel offglide after the vowel. We'll discuss them in two groups, starting with the long vowels.

Long Vowels

If the offglide is near the vowel, in other words if your mouth doesn't move much between the vowel and the semivowel, we call the diphthong a long vowel. That's the case when the semivowel matches the vowel.

The mid vowels all form long vowels using the semivowel form of the closed vowel in the same column :

Sometimes these sounds really are diphthongs, like English ate, while in other cases they're actually longer versions of the short vowel, with no movement. In Dutch, zee beu boot are diphthongs in the Netherlands and long vowels in Flanders, but in Shwa they're written alike. We never write them with the hy or hw glides, since they don't move sideways.

All the low vowels use the Yawn to form long vowels, so that every short vowel has a corresponding long vowel.

Long Mark

The twelve long vowels are often written in an abbreviated form : without the bottom of the semivowel. The remaining stem of the semivowel, a short vertical line, is called the Long mark - I'll transcribe it with a colon :. In Alphabetic gait, it's written high for high vowels, low for low vowels, so it's kind of an honorary vowel.

Long vowels are almost always written with the Long mark : we almost always write i: u: instead of iy uw. The main exception is when the next letter is another vowel. In that case, we keep the semivowel.

Some fonts include ligatures combining a vowel and its Long mark into one glyph. There are a variety of styles you should recognize. Here are some :

In some languages, the Long mark is used to indicate tense vowels, or vowels pronounced with advanced tongue root. These aren't necessarily longer than other vowels, but the three features (long, tense, ATR) seem similar and sometimes occur together. As far as I know, no language contrasts two of these features.

Cross Vowels

When a falling diphthong is not a long vowel, I'll call it a cross vowel, because it crosses your mouth from one position to another.

Several cross vowels cross to the front of your mouth :

Others cross to the back of your mouth :

Others cross towards the center of your mouth, as in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Irish :

We also use the Yawn even if they cross downwards, but not towards the center, as in Finnish :

The English sound aw is written with a Yawn as offglide when it ends the syllable, as in saw, but not when it's followed by a final consonant, as in sauce.

Finally, we use the wr semivowel for r-colored diphthongs, as in English, where your tongue drops down at the end of the sound :

And as you saw above, the word purr is written with a final off-glide, while the word her is not.

Germanic Vowels

Now we're in a position to look at examples that include long and cross vowels. The Germanic languages have some of the largest vowel inventories in the world, so let's look at some of them.

ShwaEnglishDutchGermanDanishSwedish
Short Vowels
bit zit bitten hist sill
bet zet Betten held hetta
bat baten hælde hätta
nut Bütten hyld syll
Böttingen høst nött
bird einer høne
bottle einen full
bud de eine be
balm matt
book Butten hund bott
bought zot Bottich hold moll
British bob zat hård
Long Vowels
beet zie bieten bil sil
bait zee beten hel hel
bäten hæl häl
nu wüten hyl syl
beu böten hør nöt
ful
la baten hal
boot moe buhten hun bot
boat boot Booten hob mål
hår mat
Cross Vowels
boei
boy mooi Beute
by saai weiten mig
møg
mei
nieuw stiv
meeuw levn
ruw syv
øvrig
lui
bout Bauten hav
kou
paw
earring
arrow
army
order
tourist
ShwaEnglishDutchGermanDanishSwedish

Triphthongs

Some languages have triphthongs, with two semivowels, which are straightforward extensions of what you already know. A vowel can be followed by two offglides as in English hire and flour (which some people distinguish from the two-syllable words higher and flower) :

Thai has long diphthongs where a long vowel is followed by a cross offglide, as in ยาย.


< Principles Consonants >


© 2002-2013 Shwa shwa@shwa.org 16jun13