"Schwa Fire" ventures into long-form language journalism

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For several years now, many linguists and their fellow travelers have talked about the need for a magazine about language issues that could capture the public attention. Mark Liberman has beaten the drum at least since his 2007 LSA plenary address (see: "Linguistics: The Magazine"), and there have been a few recent efforts along these lines. But Michael Erard, author of Um… and Babel No More, has taken matters into his own hands by launching an online magazine called Schwa Fire to specialize in high-quality long-form language journalism.

Erard is using Kickstarter to fund the launch of Schwa Fire and drum up interest for the project. Here's the pitch:

Meet Schwa Fire

Schwa Fire is a digital publication that will marry language geekery with long-form journalism.

I’ve been saying that Schwa Fire is going to be like This American Life, but for language. We'll look at life through a linguistic lens, and look at lives and circumstances in the language world.

Stories will be relevant to the times and accountable to the facts, and you won't have to become a linguist to understand them. We don't profess; we inquire. We'll commission pieces from people who know both story-telling and language because they've been involved in both for years. This expertise will allow them to dive into the language-related implications of a story while keeping readers asking "What happened next?"

Why now?

The expanding audience that enjoys non-fiction about language, speech, and communication needs this. Copyeditors, poets, translators, teachers, language learners, localizers, policy wonks, speechwriters, linguists, grammarheads, word freaks, Scrabble devotees, programmers, corporate namers, spelling bee coaches, crossword fans, public speakers, speech therapists, language scientists of all stripes: Schwa Fire is for you.

Fortunately, it’s a good time for stories about language — we need this lens uniquely to help us make sense of the world we live in. It's also a good time for experiments in digital publishing like Schwa Fire, because they can give a devoted audience exactly what they're interested in and what they want to talk about.

You can read more about the project on the Kickstarter page. If you're on board with the idea, you can help out with the crowdfunding. (Full disclosure: I've been encouraging Erard in his efforts along the way. I've even warmed up to the title Schwa Fire, after some initial hesitation.)


  1. Fred said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    This would be great, and I'd happily read/subscribe (and intend to contribute to the KS campaign).

    But Schwa Fire sounds a bit too much like a wink, nudge dig at "Safire"…

  2. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 2:25 am

    I like the idea but I'm not sure how well it will take off among the mavenhood or even the audience for something like Grammar Girl. I toyed with the idea of a general language information resource many years ago and even bought a domain GlottalStart.com – but that's as far as I got, so I'd be happy to hand it over to anyone who needs it for something.

  3. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 2:35 am

    Anyway, here's my $25… https://twitter.com/techczech/status/398352524777771009

  4. Phillip Minden said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 3:20 am

    To me, ʃwɑːfɑː could be improved on. Otherwise, good luck to the project!

  5. Martin J Ball said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 7:16 am

    But there already is such a magazine. Does the OP not know about 'Babel – the Language magazine'? See http://www.babelzine.com/

  6. Christopher Hodge said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    Anyone ever read Språk?

  7. Dan T. said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    It's a neat idea, but I don't particularly care for the fact that they're offering the highest-price donors "corporate sponsorship" that includes the right to create a sponsored-content article promoting their brand, as well as a guarantee against any other brands being mentioned in the other content of the issue. That's the sort of sponsor-whoring I don't like any site or publication doing.

  8. michael erard said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    Schwa Fire is my project. First of all, let me say thanks to Ben and Language Log for the support — the project is now 20% funded at 2 days in. If you supported this, thank you! If you can now pass the word and get more people on board, this thing can become a reality.

    I know about Babel, and I think it does something different. For instance, in Babel's first issue, it didn't have a story about forensic linguistics, it had an an article about the topic. When Schwa Fire does a story about forensic linguistics, the reader will be in the courtroom, will meet actual people on all sides. Let me put it this way: would you rather read an article about Unicode and localization, or about the grad student who is hunting little-known half-disappeared writing systems in archives in north India and trying to fight for them to get a Unicode encoding? If you say the latter, then Schwa Fire is for you.

    As for the sponsorships. There's a couple ways to fund something like this. You can do web ads, which are based on clicks, which amounts to a drive to lowest common denominators of content. Does anyone want the Buzzfeed of linguistics? You can get institutional support, which likely comes along with the requirement that you have to hew to their view about what matters about speech and language. (If anyone is with an institution that wants to provide support for this project and prove me wrong, get in touch.) Arguably one of the problems with outreach about linguistics, by linguists, has been a disciplinary parochialism. And I'll admit that I'm not skilled enough as a diplomat to live within an institution and carve out an ecumenical space where translators, teachers, linguists, the polyglot crowd, the speech pathologists, and the prescriptivists can scratch the itch. Until I win the lottery, the alternative is independence as I'm doing it, with a mix of revenue, and sponsorships are part of the mix. All of these are fraught. None are perfect.

    You can also NOT fund it — as in, do it in one's spare time, or on top of some other job — but that's not a recipe for the kind of work I want to do. I imagine writers getting out of their offices, out of the library, getting on the phone, and maybe even taking trips someday. Doing this costs money.

    I'm happy to answer other questions! (Sorry for taking so long on this — I was six hours in the air on United.)

    Thanks again, LanguageLoggers!

  9. Stan Carey said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    "Does the OP not know about 'Babel – the Language magazine'?"

    @Martin J Ball: Presumably he does, since he links to my post about it in his opening paragraph.

    "Does anyone want the Buzzfeed of linguistics?"

    FWIW, here it is.

  10. Dan T. said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    Yes, unfortunately, any website/publication that's not some hobbyist's labor of love they do in their spare time after either making money in a day job or being independently wealthy ends up having to "monetize" itself somehow, and every single method of this that's been tried on the web so far is annoying. Paywalls, intrusive ads that animate at you and blast sound and cover up content, and the one you're trying, which is to break down the wall between editorial and advertising and tailor the content to whoever will pay the piper. I prefer things that aren't being "monetized" myself… I also can't stand all the stadiums and college-football bowl games that have godawful corporate names attached to them.

  11. michael erard said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    I ought to note that the regular content will be "sponsored" in the sense that it will come with someone's brand on or in it, but it won't be "sponsored content" in the sense that the advertiser determines what's in it. The "sponsored content" will be something additional to the "regular" content.

  12. Julie Sedivy said,

    November 9, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    I’d like to chime in here. I think Michael Erard is right on the money with his vision for the project. A great many of us who chose to study linguistics did so because we bliss out over the aesthetic possibilities of language, or out of fascination with the ways in which language is so often at the center of human dramas of connection, misunderstanding, heroism, loss, power, or identity. A deep understanding of how language works only makes these dramas that much more compelling, and enjoyment of language that much richer.

    While blogging for Language Log, I’ve noticed that when these elements make their way into my posts, readers seem to vibrate in a special way. (For example, I was overwhelmed with the many personal emails that were sent my way following a post in which I discussed Diane Ackerman’s moving account of her husband’s aphasia.) And I think Michael is right—there really isn’t a publication that strives to focus on these kinds of stories while weaving in the insights and questions that come from really knowing language.

    (And, I have to say that in teaching linguistics courses, I’d love to give students stories that encourage them to think about the implications of what they learn, without wincing at the inaccurate or simplistic treatment of the language science. Speaking of which, Michael—any thoughts about creating some special licensing package for instructors?)

  13. michael erard said,

    November 10, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

    Julie, down the line there will definitely be packages of content for educators to use. See my earlier note about the funding model — eventually, this will be one of the trickles of revenue that will feed this thing.

  14. michael erard said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    As an update for anyone who ventures here: After a week, the Kickstarter campaign for Schwa Fire has about half of its funding, which is pretty good — but there's a limited amount of time to get the other half, only about four weeks.

    What's dramatic about Kickstarter is that if we don't reach the goal, then NONE of the funding is paid out. So if you're looking at this thinking that such a publication would be cool, then please pre-subscribe at any amount you can afford.


    If you have contributed, thank you! This is going to be great.

  15. dw said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

    Michael: could you give us potential donors a more concrete idea of what kind of articles would be in the magazine? What I've managed to find out so far is rather vague. Could you link to some existing articles/blogposts that could serve as examples of the kind of thing you would wish to commission?

  16. michael erard said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    I'm not monitoring this thread, so if you've got a question like DWs, you should email me.

    First off, look at the Kickstarter page. That lists some topics/approaches. There are links to things I've done (see number two below) as well as a recording of a profile that's in Schwa Fire vein. It also lists the New Yorker story on Lexicon Branding; I would certainly add Josh Foer's piece on invented languages.

    Second, look at most of the things that I've written. That should suggest a tone and approach. Things will be language-focused and linguistics-inflected. Writers won't be opining or professing themselves; they'll be setting a stage for a range of experts to perform their expertise. Sometimes the experts will be the focus of the story. Most of the time, they won't.

    Third, look at my comment above.

    But since DW identified him/herself as a potential subscriber, and if all of those things haven't satisfied you, here are some other ideas:

    — A profile of Johanna NIchols and the impact of her work on historical linguistics, especially the time depth of reconstructions.

    — An anthropology of grammar peevers. Who are they, where do they come from, and what do they want?

    — A report from/on the International Linguistics Olympiad, which will be held this year in China.

    — The impact of keyboards/keyboarding in various parts of the world, especially as it provokes added focus on calligraphic/cursive forms in education and society.

  17. Mark Allen said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

    I love the concept, but the sponsorship idea was a nonstarter for me. It appears from the Kickstarter page that an article or brand will get special treatment in the editorial space of the magazine in exchange for money. But the response here leads me to think that this is simply a logo with no sponsor influence on the content. In other words, an ad. Or maybe more like a mention in public broadcasting. I think some clarity would help, and I'll suggest that that right answer in my mind is that the editorial content and the sponsorship will be separate, as it should be in any organization with a journalistic mission.

  18. michael erard said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    Mark, they're separate. In a sponsored content scenario, there would be two articles, one about how we'll spell on the moon (I don't know, making it up here), the other about how French is taking over the world. Those would be editorial content, independently produced. There would be a third article, sponsored by the Endangered Language Consortium, about the way that technology is being used in documentation projects; it meets editorial standards.

    Otherwise, there would be two articles, one of which would have a logo: sponsored by TranslationToday, your translation provider, and maybe a link. The other would have a logo: sponsored by GrammarChekker, your cloud-based grammar tool, and maybe a link. The content of each articel would be independently produced.

  19. michael erard said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    Sorry, "article."

  20. Mark Allen said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Michael. If the ELC's sponsored article is clearly noted as a sponsored article, I'll be a happy reader.

  21. michael erard said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    Should this discussion have warmed you up to the project, here's the link to the Kickstarter again: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/845319788/ignite-the-schwa-fire

  22. Joe Mc Kay's "Crazy About Words" said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    I think he's referring to the word "schwa" which is the name for a neutral, unstressed, frequently central vowel in a word, e.g., the "o" in "kaleidoscope" …. symbolized by the backward "e" in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
    From the pronunciation of a word like "kaleidoscope" or "bowdlerize" it's sometimes difficult to know which vowel is orthographically correct.
    That's why words with "schwas" are favorites of (spelling) Bee Masters.
    One of the essays in my next edition of "Crazy About Words" will deal with my funny experience as a contestant in a community spelling bee.

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