Schwa Fire

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Michael Erard's Schwa Fire is now live:

The golden age of language journalism begins now. In this inaugural issue, Arika Okrent tells the story of 5,700 hours of Yiddish recordings that were almost lost ("Ghost Voices"), and Russell Cobb writes about Americans' fondness for the Englishes we used to speak and what that fondness obscures ("The Way We Talked"). Michael Erard describes and defends "language journalism," and Robert Lane Greene provides a lesson on the languages of love ("Wooing in Danish"). Also included: an English homophone puzzle.

You can subscribe for \$6.99 a year, or buy individual articles for \$0.99. For more background, see Jennifer Schuessler, "New Online Magazine Honors the Mighty Schwa", NYT 5/23/2014.



  1. dw said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    Can some explain the title "Schwa Fire"? Is there some kind of joke I'm missing?

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    As in William Schwafire? I got nothin'.

  3. Rubrick said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

    That's a pretty good attempt, Rod!

  4. Michael Briggs said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    I looked at the website and considered buying one article. I stopped when they demanded that I "log in."

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

    You can find Michael Erard's explanation for "Schwa Fire" on the About page:

    Why “schwa?” Because everybody likes to say “schwa.” Which, by the way, is the name of a mid-central vowel that’s usually not stressed in English, like the final vowel of “sofa.”

    Why "fire"? If you’re reading Schwa Fire, it’s because you love all aspects of speech, language, and communication. “Fire” points to passion and enthusiasm.

    Also see this Fast Company interview with Michael:

    "Fire is something that would translate really well across a lot of cultures," Erard explained to Fast Company. "And 'schwa' is something that people like to say," he added. The name is also a shibboleth: Those who know the term will find the content interesting. Those who don't and don't care to find out what it means, won't.

    (And for more from Michael on the project, see the comments on my November post announcing his Kickstarter campaign.)

  6. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

    I have a tee shirt that says, "I wanna be a schwa, they're never stressed…. "

  7. Michael Watts said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    "I wanna be a schwa, they're never stressed"

    That was my understanding of schwa too, but there appears to be some controversy; compare

  8. Keith said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    @Michael Watts
    "That was my understanding of schwa too, but there appears to be some controversy; compare"
    But Merriam Webster is such a bad dictionary that it doesn't even matter.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 8:09 am

    Keith, please share your criteria for a good dictionary.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    Oh, and: as discussed here before, there are two schools of thought about schwa, with proponents of one sometimes unaware of the existence of the other. The "phonological" schwa is an unstressed vowel of no particular inherent quality, sometimes but not always the product of some kind of vowel reduction or epenthesis. Exactly how it is realized phonetically differs a lot across languages and according to context, for instance [ɨ], [ɯ], [ə], [ɜ], or even [u]. The "phonetic" schwa (the IPA schwa) is simply a mid central unrounded vowel, independent of stress. Some people have been brought up in one tradition, some in the other. People in the phonological tradition might prefer butter to be transcribed /ˈbʌ-tər/, but in IPA /ʌ/ is a low-mid back unrounded vowel, so that's an inappropriate choice.

  11. CrisisMaven said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    To understand the Yiddish influences in English like the above "Schwa" (originally, as pointed out in a comment above, rooted in a Hebrew letter) you often have to have some background in Jewish culture and tradition, like Hassidism, Talmudic logic and disputation (pilpul), even Kaballah. I'm afraid these nuances are generally lost on everyone who has not, as in a Jewish "shtetl" been immersed in this, even reading, since age four!

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