Letter Names

When we talk about "the English alphabet", for example, we mean the set of letters needed to write English, in a particular order, with a spelling name for each one: "Ay Bee Cee ...". The ICAO alphabet has different names for those same letters: "Alfa Bravo Charlie ...".

The Musa alphabet works a little differently. First of all, there's no definitive list of all possible letters: each language just uses the letters it needs. However, there is a definitive list of shapes, and the shapes have names. Thus, the name of a letter is two syllables, the names of the two shapes - one on top and one on the bottom - that combine to form the letter. For vowels, one of them may be a space or an accent.

You may find it odd that the letter names don't include the sound that the letter represents, but if you think about it, that makes sense. If you didn't quite catch what the other person said, you can ask him to repeat it, but if you can't hear which sound he's saying, you need him to specify the letter some other way: by its shape.

We see the same thing, for example, in Spanish, where the letters b and v are pronounced alike. The first is called b alta, "high b", and the second is called v baja, "low v" - it would make no sense just to repeat the sound. The names of many letters in the Greek alphabet work the same way: epsilon is "simple e" (not αι), omicron is "small o" while omega is "large o", etc. We even say "double u" in English.

Shape Name Alone Suffix Slender As Top As Bottom
 ya Space 
Long Mark
low vowel high vowel
 fi 
low rising tone high rising tone
 fa low level tone high level tone
 fu low falling tone high falling tone
 yu Long Mark Break glottal,
or suffix
 nu Nasal Prenasal nasal
 mu eu Velarized yh click
 pu uh
 na ih
 pa ueh
 ka eah Unreleased Catch voiced plosive dorsal
 ta e Labial-Velar vw aspirated plosive labiodental or
 sa o Widening h voiced fricative hushing sibilant
 wa oeh
 ma euh
 lu u Labialized w voiced lateral lateral release
 wi oe
 si o Backing ejective fricative hissing sibilant
 ti ee Fronting ejective plosive labial
 ki ea Raising hr implosive uvular
 pi ue Palatal+Labial yw devoiced sonorant palatal sibilant
 ni i Palatalized y murmured nasal palatal
 su ah Narrowing ɦ unvoiced fricative retroflex sibilant
 ku a Lowering wh breathy plosive
 tu ae Emphatic unvoiced plosive radical
 ri er Rhotic wr rhotic retroflex

The name of a letter is then just the name of the top followed by the name of the bottom, with the stress on the second syllable. So for example, the word Musa  would be spelled out loud as "nuti luwai susi waiku". Note that a high vowel is read as vowel+space, and a low vowel is read as space+vowel; accents work the same way. Also note that you can pronounce the names voiced or aspirated - you can say "bi" or "pʰi" - without ambiguity, if that's easier.

The last four columns - what each shape means in each position - is the real "alphabet" : what you have to learn to read and write Musa.

Here is a simplified version of that chart to help you learn the shape names.

Foreign Names

Names of places, people and other things in foreign languages may include sounds that you don't have in your language, spelled with Musa letters that aren't familiar.

For example, the French name Paris  has a guttural r that doesn't occur in English. (At least, in Musa, it doesn't have the silent s at the end.) But the zigzag top of the Musa letter helps you recognize it as a "type of r", and you'll be understood by other English speakers if you pronounce it with your normal English r: that's effectively "the English name for Paris". But it's spelled the same as in French.

In English, we call the German city of Köln as if it were spelled "Colone", but we spell it as do the French: Cologne. In English, we don't have the ö sound, and we can't pronounce the light l after a vowel or before an n. We also lack the ny sound of the French name. But English speakers can pronounce Kolln, with the o of dog and the l of all. So that's what we call Köln, even though we spell it the German way.


Since the names of Musa letters are two syllables, it makes no sense to abbreviate longer phrases by their initials when speaking. Instead, we abbreviate them by their stressed syllables, as we now do in Russian (Komsomol) or the US Navy (CincLant). So instead of saying you-ess-ay for USA, we'd say nite-stay-am. We never make a new word from the initials, either (like URL pronounced url).

However, written abbreviations like kg for kilogram are fine. When you read kg aloud, you say kilogram, not kay gee. No problem.

Alphabetic Order

The order of the shapes above is alphabetical order. It's based on the numeric values of each shape, so that numbers and letters sort by the same criteria. (That isn't true in English, where 100 sorts before 99.)

As in many languages, the alphabet can be sung as a song:

Ya fifafu, yu numupu, napa kata sawama lu; wisi tiki pini, sukutu ri.

Spaces and punctuation (accents without vowels) sort before letters, so shorter words sort before longer words:

 before 

Vowels sort before consonants, so:

 before 

High vowels sort before low vowels, and accents in the order none-rising-level-falling:

       

Consonants sort by top before bottom:

 before 

The end result is that letters sort in order of their encodings, which you can see on the next page. That makes sorting very easy to implement.

< Gaits Letter Reference >

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