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.


Here are the English consonants, along with examples of their use. Note that the top two rows seem to feature the same consonants: p t k ch - we'll discuss them below.

pea tea chew key
spit up start cats itch skunk
babe dude beds judge gag
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 Consonants

As mentioned elsewhere, 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 fortis consonants.

The English consonants p t ch k are called fortis: they're pronounced with more energy than the corresponding lenis consonants b d j g. In Musa, we write them with the letters in the first row above:    . They're aspirated, while the lenis consonants are voiced. The other Germanic languages feature the same distinction.

But there are several contexts when this aspiration is lost, and fortis consonants are pronounced unaspirated and unvoiced (tenuis):

In these contexts, we write the fortis consonants with the letters in the second row above:    . Many native English speakers don't see the point of capturing this feature in the writing system. After all, we don't distinguish the two ps now, and no problems arise. But they can hear the difference, for instance between shortstop and short's top. So the better question may be "why do we English speakers de-aspirate p t k ch in those contexts?".

I have a theory: that this de-aspiration developed to help make the distinction between p t k ch and sp st sk sh. Those clusters starting with s are rare in the world's languages, and hard to pronounce - normally, the more sonorous sounds are closer to the vowel. We don't have the same problem with sm and sn - there are no voiceless nasals in English. And German also has s-clusters, and also aspirates p t k.

But my theory doesn't explain why we merge fortis and lenis consonants in final position or at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, where that creates many homophones. Anyway, my theory is just a hypothesis, but the aspiration is undeniable.

pan span sap
tan Stan sat
chin shin cinch
can scan sack

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. This pronunciation often extends to d's, across word boundaries, or when the t is preceded by r l m or n. In these pages, we'll only flap t and d within a word, but you can spell each word as you pronounce it, or spell to a standard.


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 road's.

Why don't we just write these 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. 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.

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 Island dialects, final stops like t are glottalized or pre-glottalized: football is pronounced as foo?ball or foo?tball. In extreme cases, the following consonant can become ejective. If that's how you say it, that's how you should write it, using the letter above.

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.

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.


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 English 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 English: an open vowel (more open than schwa) in words like a, the, of, about, 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, 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. Often, unstressed i in the endings -ic and -ing is not reduced to schwi, for example.

In some dialects, the schwa is pronounced more like 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!

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:



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 :


Four move toward the close back vowel :


The last 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:


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 wander off) or an epenthetic r is inserted ("intrusive" r, as in law-r and order), 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
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
almond 
all 
acorn 
pa 
paw 
arrow 
army 
early 
eagle 
eyeball 
Romanas inMusa
Eearring 
errand 
machine 
ice 
ire 
Romanas inMusa
sink 
long 
lot 
lose 
lone 
loud 
tour 
lord 
hour 
Qqueen 
Romanas inMusa
rune 
cute 
pure 
Xax 
my 

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.


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


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


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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