Musa for English


The Home page discussed some of the problems with our current spelling :

The Musa script solves all of those problems. For example, the shapes of the letters indicate their pronunciation : vowels are small, and consonants are twice as tall. Rounded vowels are round, and unrounded vowels are unround. Closed vowels are closed, and open vowels are open. Consonants with sharp tops are sharp sounds, while consonants with smooth tops are smooth sounds, and so on.

You'll notice many more regularities as you learn Musa. Of course, you don't have to think about them as you read Musa! You'll just learn the letters, as you did with the Roman alphabet when you learned to read English. And Musa doesn't have capital letters, so there are fewer letters even though they represent more sounds.

But the fact that the letter shapes form a system is a big advantage, both for learning English and in case you spot an unfamiliar letter in a foreign language. Since Musa is a universal script, it has letters for all the sounds we don't have in English, too! But you don't need to learn all those letters - just the ones for the languages you want to read and write.

Consonants

Here are the English consonants, along with examples of their use. Note that the top four rows all seem to feature the same stop consonants: p/b t/d ts/dz ch/j k/g - we'll discuss them below.

pea tea chew key
cup cat cats itch sick
babe, spill dude, still beds judge gag, skill
above adopt ajar against
fluff thirtieth sauce sheepish
valve they zoos Asia
mom nun banking
we low roar² you all¹
night-owl water oar² high uh-oh

The letters in the last row are semivowels - they're vowels being used as consonants.

¹You may never have thought about it before, but we English speakers pronounce l differently at the end of words or syllables, as in the difference between oily and oil. In Musa, we use a different letter for this "dark" final ll.

²English dialects are divided into two large groups, and (among other features) they pronounce the r sound after vowels quite differently. Most of the American dialects (USA and Canada) are rhotic: they pronounce r after a vowel with the same sound they use before a vowel, the retroflex semivowel /ɹ/ as in roar above. Most of the Island dialects (Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Caribbean, Singapore, South Africa) are non-rhotic: an r after a vowel is pronounced with a centering offglide towards schwa, or sometimes by simply lengthening the vowel. We'll talk more about this under diphthongs, below.

Fortis and Lenis Consonants

Musa spells English at a more phonetic level than we now do, so you have to be a little more aware of how we actually pronounce our language. Fortunately, there are only a couple of tricky parts to learn. You'll encounter reduced vowels below; the other has to do with consonant voicing.

The English plosives p t k and the affricate ch are fortis: they contrast with the corresponding lenis consonants b d g j. This phonemic distinction controls the voicing of the phonetic forms, but in a somewhat indirect manner. Fortis stops are usually aspirated and never voiced, and lenis stops are usually voiced and never aspirated, but both of them are sometimes tenuis (unvoiced and unaspirated).

Fortis stops p t k ch keep their aspiration at the beginning of a word or the beginning of a stressed syllable, and we write them with aspirated letters:

   
pin tin kin chin
   
repair return recover recharge

They lose their aspiration in three situations. First, when they follow an unvoiced fricative f th s sh, even when the fricative is in the preceding syllable (most of the time: there are cases like passport where the two syllables seem like two different words).

  
spill still skill
   
disperse disturb discuss discharge

Second, at the beginning of an unstressed syllable:

   
camper canter canker catcher

Third, at the end of a syllable. But here, instead of becoming tenuis, they become glottalic: the plosive is unreleased, or you stop or squeeze the flow of air for a moment, and/or the preceding vowel is clipped or devoiced: Hat doesn't sound like had. In this case, we write the plosive with an ejective letter, even when followed by s:

   
cap cat crack catch
  
caps cats cracks

Lenis stops b d g j keep their voicing around vowels and voiced consonants, and we write them with voiced letters:

   
robber fodder logger roger
   
umbrella aardvark burglar enlargement

But if they're before or after a pause or an unvoiced consonant (p t c k f s h), they lose their voice, and we write them with tenuis letters:

   
bib dead gag judge
   
misbehave misdial misguide misjudge
   
website handful jigsaw hedgehog

Flap T and D

In American dialects, when a t or d comes after a stressed vowel and before a reduced vowel, it's actually pronounced as a flap, which we spell . For example, the word writing is pronounced like riding, petal like pedal, and water as if it were wodder.

Affricates

English often adds an s to the ends of words: plurals like cats, possessives like cat's, the 3rd person singular present of most verbs, like puts, and contractions with is or has, like what's. If the word ends in t, we combine it with the s and replace them both with the letter ts . Likewise, d plus s (actually, z) becomes dz , as in reads rides roads. But we don't combine them across a morpheme boundary, as in wetsuit nutshell windstorm headshot.

Why don't we just write these -s words as consonant clusters t+s and d+z? Because we only use those clusters when the initial plosive is released before the sibilant, so we can write the difference between ratchet  and rat shit .

Other Changes

There are a lot more phonological phenomena in English - too many to cover them all here. Most of them appear in only some dialects, but that's not a reason to ignore them! We want written English to reflect all the diversity of spoken English - we don't want Scots and Texans to sound like the Queen in writing. Here are a few:

When t d s z are followed by y, they combine to form ch j sh zh, a phenomenon called yod-coalescence. It's as if the word mature were spelled machure, module were spelled modjule, sure were spelled shure, and Asia were spelled Azha. This occurs in almost all dialects, although not in all contexts.

When t d st are followed by r, they often retract to assimilate to the rhotic. If you want to write this, we recommend you use retroflex    instead of the postalveolar affricates   . But write them as you pronounce them.

In some dialects, words in wh-, like whine and whale are pronounced unlike wine and wail - the wh is voiceless. Musa has a letter for that sound: .

In many dialects, tense vowels insert a schwi before l and sometimes r, so that words like peel pool pale pole are pronounced pee-ᵻl poo-ᵻl pay-ᵻl poe-ᵻl. This is called vowel breaking.

There's much more to be said, but not by me. For more information on the details of British English, I recommend the books and videos of Geoff Lindsey. As I mention above, the idea is to write English in Musa as you pronounce it, not to a standard. That makes it slightly harder to understand - just as a Jamaican, an Indian, or a Kiwi are hard for me to understand in speech - but ultimately means that everybody writes the language they speak.

Vowels

The English vowels differ quite a bit between dialects. We'll start by describing a general system that applies to most dialects, and then describe some of the dialectal differences.

A note for speakers outside of North America: the textbook British accent is called RP, for Received Pronunciation. That's what Queen Victoria spoke! But nowadays, the standard English accent has evolved somewhat, both with the passage of time and with the passage of prestige from the upper class to the middle class. What you are more likely to hear these days is something called Estuary English, SSB (Standard Southern British), or CUBE (Current British English). There are numerous resources available to explore the newer pronunciations, but here's a good one: the CUBE Dictionary.

Here, we'll continue to use RP as a standard, since it's so well-documented. We'll let you adjust your Musa to your accent on your own.

Short Vowels

Here are the English short vowels :

itchy cookie
elbow ugly
apple otter¹

¹In many American dialects, the otter vowel has merged with adjacent long vowels. We'll discuss this in more detail below.

Reduced Vowels

In English, the rhythm of a word - which syllables are stressed and which aren't - is very important. In Musa, stressed vowels are written high - in the top half of the line - and unstressed vowels are written low - in the bottom half of the line.

Many unstressed syllables - including many one-syllable "little words" - feature reduced vowels. There are two of them in many dialects of English: an open schwa vowel in words like a, the, of, about, and above; and a close schwi sound in words like is, it, its, if, his, in, message, bottle, bottom, and button. When you hesitate as to whether the sound is an i or a u, as in London, that's a schwi. You can hear the contrast between them in Rosa's roses.

open schwa bottomRosa's
schwi buttonroses

Usually, an unstressed final a as in comma, comma's or commas, or initial a as in above, is an open schwa (IPA ɐ), and everything else reduces to schwi. But if you pronounce pigeon and Lennon differently from pidgin and Lenin, then write them with an open schwa. In some dialects, these two weak vowels merge into a standard schwa: IPA ə, Musa . The open reduced vowel has a very large range of realizations, all open and unstressed. When saying it, it's not just the mouth that's relaxed - it's also the attitude!

For some reason, unstressed i is not reduced to schwi in final suffixes like -ic, -ing, -ist, -ism, -ish, -ive, but is reduced in two-syllable suffixes like -ity or -ify. And of course -ize (British -ise) is the eyeball diphthong you'll meet below.

Nor is every unstressed vowel reduced. When an unstressed vowel is not reduced, it's called secondary stress. For example, the unstressed vowels before st in historic, vestigial, plasticity, nostalgia, and crustacean are not reduced. There are no simple rules, but often, English doesn't like too many reduced vowels in sequence, and leaves one unreduced. In some cases, an unstressed vowel is never reduced; in others, it depends on how quickly or carefully you're speaking.

Long Vowels

English has two vowels that are always drawn out longer, and we write them with a following long mark . These are not just longer versions of the short vowels. The short vowels you met above can't end a syllable in English, but these two can, as in paw and pa:

author
almond

Diphthongs

Diphthongs are vowels that move while you're saying them, from one vowel position to another. One vowel is more prominent, and we write the other one as a semivowel. When the semivowel comes before the vowel, we call it an onglide; when it comes afterwards, we call it an offglide.

English has two main classes of diphthong: closing diphthongs that end in the y or w sounds, and centering diphthongs that end in r.

Four diphthongs move toward the close front vowel :

eagle
acorn
eyeball
oyster

Four move toward the close back vowel :

ooze
ocean
owl
use

The use diphthong above has both a y onglide and a w offglide, as in unit, beauty, few and mute. It's the same as the ooze diphthong, except there's an onglide y in front of it:

fool
‌fuel
Yule

In some dialects, the eyeball and owl diphthongs start from a more closed position, and we write them with a schwa. This is called Canadian raising, even though it also occurs in the USA.

eyeball
owl

There are six more diphthongs that move inward toward the rhotic vowel :

early earring arrow army order tourist

Note that the vowels of the rhotic diphthongs are lax or central, while the vowels of the closing diphthongs were tense.

In non-rhotic dialects this offglide moves toward the schwa vowel . We spell this with an centering offglide:

burr beer bear bar bore boor

In modern Standard Southern British, the offglide has become a simple lengthening of the vowel, so the sounds above are now pronounced as spelled here, with a long mark:

burr beer bear bar bore boor

However, when the r is pronounced between vowels ("linking" r, as in four aces) or an epenthetic r is inserted ("intrusive" r, as in draw(r)ing), then the offglide should change to .

There are also three triphthongs ending in r - pyre, power and pure - although some dialects consider hire, flour and your to be one syllable, while others pronounce them like higher, flower and ewer.

hire higher
flour flower
your ewer

You read about reduced short vowels above. Long vowels and narrow diphthongs can also be reduced when unstressed, for example at the end of words like grandma, inlaw, happy, yesterday, nephew, shadow, and butter. In cases like those above, the reduction is spelled by omitting the long mark or offglide: they're shortened. For wider diphthongs, as in words like discount or nitrite, the reduction is hard to hear, and Musa has no way to write it.

But not every unstressed long vowel or diphthong is shortened; there are many exceptions: angry is short, but pedigree is long, policies is short, but indices is long, spiky is short, but psyche is long. The early vowel is reduced in desert but not in expert, in prosper but not larkspur, in pertain but not flirtatious. As with short vowels, there's no rule - the dictionary has to show reduction.

Open Vowels

In American dialects, the open vowel otter isn't used. Words like lot, stop, rob, swan are pronounced with the same  sound as in palm, calm, bra, father, and words like cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin are pronounced with the same sound as in thought, taut, hawk, broad, although they could all be pronounced either  or .

IslandLexical SetAmerican
trap, bad, cab, ham, arrow
bath, staff, clasp, dance
palm, calm, bra, father
lot, stop, rob, swan
cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin
or

thought, taut, hawk, broad

In these pages, we'll write that cloth/thought vowel as , but you can write it as you pronounce it. When the author vowel occurs in diphthongs like oyster or order, it's always pronounced and written as .

In some American dialects, the short a as in cat is pronounced longer and tenser (closer) before nasal consonants m n ng or g. In some of these dialects, it almost sounds like a short e: can't sounds like Kent. In others, it's not that closed but it's still longer and tenser. We can write that tense a with a long mark: 

Some dialects also differentiate between the vowels of north and forth, between hurry and furry, or between marry, merry and Mary. Musa can write all of those variants, so you can either write them as you pronounce them, or write to a standard. But like story and storey, a modicum of variation doesn't reduce comprehension.

Conversion Chart

Here's how to write the Roman letters in Musa, for American English :

Romanas inMusa
A apple
almond 
all 
about
acorn 
pa 
paw 
arrow 
army 
B babe
above
C cap
act
broadcast
city
special
chin
inch
armchair
D dude
adopt
sides
Romanas inMusa
E elbow
early 
eyeball 
eagle 
earring 
errand 
F fluff
G gag
against
George
agile
beige
H high
I itchy
machine 
ice 
ire 
J judge
ajar
K kiss
sick
upkeep
Romanas inMusa
L low
all
M mom
N nun
singing
sink 
O look
long 
lot 
lose 
lone 
loud 
tour 
lord 
hour 
P pill
lip
saucepan
Q queen 
R roar
S sauce
as
Romanas inMusa
S shoe
Asia
T tale
mate
laptop
mates
water
thought
though
U rut
put
rune 
cute 
pure 
V valve
W we
X ax 
exit 
Y you
any
my 
Z zoos
adze

Musa spells English at a more phonetic level than we now do, so you might want to read aloud at first. The advantages are that it's much easier to learn, that foreigners will pronounce English more correctly, and that you'll pronounce their languages more correctly as you read them in Musa.

Transcriber

The transcriber is a tool for converting English from the Roman Alphabet to Musa:

Transcriber

Learning Aids

To help you learn how to read and write English in the Musa alphabet, we offer a variety of learning aids. Use the one(s) you find most useful!

Learning Aids

Samples

Now that you've learned how it works, why don't you try reading some sentences?


The road to Hell is paved with good intentions


No good deed goes unpunished

And here's a limerick:



   
   


And a couple of famous quotes.



  

Finally, a complete poem:









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