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A digital publication about language and life

Update: Stretch Goal #1   

Let's get Schwa Fire stories into other languages. If the Kickstarter campaign goes over by $7500, I'll be able to translate one story from each of the first three issues into another language. If you're on the translation panel, you'll help pick the story and pick the destination language. 

Funds raised will pay for professional translation of the stories as well as marketing them as stand-alone pieces. At the outset, I figured this was something that Schwa Fire would eventually try to do. But thanks to the support so far, we can shoot for it from the beginning. 

This means aiming for 130% of the current goal! 

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 pull out the language aspect of the human story, and pull out the human part of language. 

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. Speech pathologists, 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, language scientists of all stripes: Schwa Fire is for you. 

Fortunately, it’s a good time for stories about language -- we need this unique lens 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. 

The Schwa Fire story 

I’ve been writing about language and languages for over a decade for publications like The New York TimesScienceWiredNew Scientist, and Slate; I was a language journalist before that was even a term. 

Over those years, I've been part of conversations about starting a popular language magazine. When those conversations started up again late last year, I realized I had a vision for what this could be. I've managed people and long-term projects, and I've been an editor, so I have all the skills I need to do this.  

I remember, as a kid, being interested in language but finding only technical books. Schwa Fire is for that kid -- and for everyone who wants a meaty but accessible view of why language matters. 

Schwa Fire is also the platform that I wish I had as a creator when I was starting out. I know a lot of amazing writers and producers who also have their hands on great stories about language – if only they had direct access to a devoted audience that realizes implicitly why those stories matter. 

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). 

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. 

Some of the great stories you'll find in Schwa Fire

• A text story about the grad student who is searching out little-known, half-disappeared writing systems in archives in India and trying to get them their own Unicode encoding. 

• A text story about how lexicographers are actually hired (and what this says about dictionaries and the English language). 

• A text story about how language politics in the American heartland transformed a tiny translation-by-telephone service into a $300 million company. 

• An audio story about a family who learned Russian before adopting two Russian children, which reveals the linguistic dimensions of the adoption world. (All of the audio stories will be transcribed for accessibility.)

• An audio story about a doll that’s programmed to speak in multiple minority languages of Africa. 

•An audio story about people in certain jobs who use their voices, not their muscles or guns, to control others. 

These are stories that will be deeply reported and well-written, along the lines of what you’d find in the New Yorker or This American Life. John Colapinto’s New Yorker story about Lexicon Branding is one that Schwa Fire would have done (and we would have dug more deeply into the issue of sound symbolism). Other examples are the story I wrote about language tests given to political asylum seekers for Legal Affairs, or the profile of Unicode's minority alphabet champion, Michael Everson, which I wrote for The New York Times. Or listen to "Parts of Speech," an award-winning profile of a Maine newspaperman who is dealing with his new artificial voice, a piece produced by Emily Kwong as a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies (Note: There's a transcript of this piece below.) 

Have a story that you want to write for Schwa Fire? Get in touch at


"I didn't believe in any Kickstarter project I saw so far. Today I backed for the first time in my life, for Schwa Fire. It's just something I would love to read, and which should come to life. So, my compliments for your initiative. Make it happen."

"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."

What your contribution will pay for

Because Schwa Fire will be ad-free, this Kickstarter funding will pay creators and editors to produce stories. They'll be in text, audio, or a combo of audio and images, depending on which suits the topic of the story best. There will also be costs (which I will keep as low as possible) associated with digital publishing. Anyway, the point is, there are no expense accounts, no strata of senior editors to pay for. 

Digital periodicals have been popping up all over. You might take a look at The Magazine or Matter as examples. Digital publications like these are more sustainable in the long run, especially as mobile devices proliferate. Publishing digitally also allows us to publish in audio, images, and even perhaps video some day. 

How often Schwa Fire will appear

Every two months at the start, then eventually becoming monthly. Each issue will contain two stories and cost $1.99 apiece. It will be available on the web and for iOS and Android devices to start. Eventually we'll roll out Kindle and ePUBs. I haven't decided on a publishing platform yet, though I've talked to all of the providers. 

Are there really no other publications like this? 

There aren't. There are publications that serve individual niche audiences (such as public speakers or language teachers), but they’re filled with service articles. There are well-done columns, and the online world has good blogs and podcasts, but these are tied to the news cycle. They don't drive it. Simply put, there’s no publication devoted to quality long-form nonfiction that puts language at the center, and I believe there’s an audience for it. 

Help guide editorial decisions

If you're an expert in a certain language-related area or have a particular view about usage, you can become part of the Schwa Fire community and shape the decisions that have to be made about the language of the magazine itself by joining three panels: 

•Story panels : Participate in decisions about which stories to pursue.

•Translation panels: A publication like Schwa Fire should be in as many languages as possible. You can participate in decisions about which stories to translate out of English, and into which languages. 

•Usage panel: A fan of the serial comma? Prefer British spelling? Become a member of the usage panel and participate in decisions about the style and usage standards for the publication. 

Does this mean dull meetings and more work? Not at all -- you'll be helping to make actual decisions via a tool called a "wikiSurvey," an example of which you can see at


Video Production: Rob Shore
Logo: Michael Chang and Shannon Perry
A huge thanks to Arika Okrent, Patrick Cox, and Nicco Mele for appearing in the video. Thanks to Sonia Narang for shooting additional footage, and to Emily Kwong (at for permission to re-use her audio piece. I appreciate advice from Erin McKean, Mark Liberman, Ben Zimmer, and Richard Parker. 

Transcript for Emily Kwong's "Parts of Speech"

Host Intro: Doug Harlow isn’t afraid to use his voice. He was a beat poet in Boston. He protested the Vietnam War in D.C. After Franco died, he joined the anarchists tearing up the cobblestones of Las Ramblas. There was a time he could say “I Love You” in a dozen languages and when his kids were little, he made radio dramas and played all the parts. He works as reporter in Maine and churns out seven, sometimes eight, articles a week. Doug is a born communicator, but it’s not because he has the loudest voice in the room. Emily Kwong has the story. 

It was the 17th of June 2005 when 56-year-old Doug Harlow stepped up to the microphone.

DH: You know, this really sucks not having a voice. But it’s a message to everybody who can hear this voice now. Don't smoke. 

Earlier that year, doctors had found cancer on Doug’s vocal cords. In order to stay alive, he would have to lose his voice. So, while a friend monitored the recording, Doug said some things to his family that he’d never be able to say again. 

DH (recording): I love you Mary Lou. Love you. Love you guys. Love you Johnny. Love you Georgia. Love you Mary Lou. I love you Mary Lou. Here Saddie, come on Saddie.

Ambient – Door opening. Dog parking. It’s been eight years. There’s a new dog.

Ambient – door opening. Dog barking. 

DH: Oakley, can you sit. (Dog sounds) DH: Good boy. Would you like to be in a radio documentary?

And the throat cancer is gone. (Dog sniffing) 

DH: A simple yes or no would do. 

Doug came home from the hospital without vocal cords. That’s because surgeons had removed his entire larynx, which is the organ of sound production. They cut a small hole at the base of his throat to allow him to breathe. And to speak, doctors handed him something called an electro larynx. It was black, palm-sized, and battery-powered. 

DH: I remember it being like a foreign appendage, something that was like a machine that I was supposed to be able to talk with, through. (Slight pause – police scanner in background) 

DH: I didn't give myself any choice. “You're gonna learn how to use it and then you’re going to go back to work.” And that was it. 

Doug is 5 11’ with brown eyes. His gaze is direct. The number 13 is tattooed on his left hand, which he applied himself with pencil lead and cigarette ash. This is the hand he speaks with. 

DH: There's another couple buttons for pitch up and down. So I can speak in a lower voice (lowers), and I can speak in a higher voice (higher). It’s not easy to use. It’s exhausting. (sighs) 

Doug wears his electro larynx around his neck on a black cord. He’ll hold is flush against his throat and with the push of a button, the voicebox vibrates. (Buzz) Kind of like his vocal chords used to. 

DH: Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. (Buzz) 

It’s not an unpleasant sound, but you’d never mistake it for a human voice. One of the first times Doug was out in public, he went to a Mr. Paperback bookstore. He approached a female clerk whose back was turned and… 

DH: I approached her saying, “Can you help me?” She turned around, screamed, and ran into a back room. Slammed the door shut. And I said, great. I’ve got a lifetime of this shit. (Bleep) 

Doug rebounded quickly. He returned to work at the Morning Sentinel five weeks after his surgery. His colleagues wondered if he’d keep reporting or take a silent post behind the copy desk. 

 (Ambi – Newsroom sounds, police scanner, phone ringing) 

When Doug made interview calls, sources hung up on him. (Ambi – Receiver picking up. Dial tone) They accused him of making a prank phone call. Colin Hickey sat directly across from him. 

Colin: And this would just drive Doug crazy. Because you know, he couldn’t do his job. He couldn’t get the information. And there were points where he’d ask me, “Can you make the call?” “Hey, my colleague has a mechanical voice. You’ve been hanging up on him. So, when he calls next, just hold on and you’ll get used to it. 

(Ambi – Phone ringing) 

Doug kept calling. And eventually, he stopped asking Colin for help. 

Colin: Eventually and I don’t know if it was weeks, I don’t know if it was months, but eventually, this artificial voice, started to sound, it started to sound like Doug again. 

DH: I finally learned how to use this thing and how to throw in an inflection, syntax, or whatever with tongue and lips. 

These days, Doug is one of the paper’s busiest reporters. He interviews cops and criminals and listens to the police scanner for activity. When he calls for information, the detectives understand his questions. 

(Ambi—Typing, police scanner, dialing) 

Detective: Sherriff’s Department, this is Detective X. 

DH: Good afternoon Doug Harlow calling. 

Detective: How you doing? 

DH: Do you recognize my voice? 

Detective: Yes sir, what do you need today? Haven’t had much going on. 

DH: Well that’s my question… 

Detective: (Laughing) I already anticipated it. Light day. 

Doug: That’s good news. Thank you. 

Doug is navigating life just fine with a voice box. He can say anything he wants to, but that doesn’t mean he’s always heard. It’s changed the way he relates to people, even his wife of 27 years. Mary Lou. 

MH: I’m still talking the way I always spoke when he had a voice too, so it is something that I have to try to keep in mind, even like during an argument, giving him the opportunity to argue back. Because I can get louder than what he can. So. That kind of stuff is real. It is what it is. Not that I ever intend to do it, but I do do it. 

EK: What do you do when you're not being heard? 

DH: I shut up. And that's not like me. You know. I used to be outspoken a lot more than I am now because I cannot be heard. And if I can't be heard, then I'm not going to say it. It’s frustrating at times. It makes me angry at times still. Parties or loud restaurants can get discouraging. There’s a lot Doug wants to say, but he ultimately depends on technology to say it. 

DH: It’s the only thing I have. It’s the only way that I can speak. And that’s kind of weird if you slow down for a minute and think about that. You know. When the power goes out finally and fully, when the mountain meets the sea and Armageddon, I'm not going to have batteries. And then I will be silent. 

But Doug is far from silent. He is still heard because he’s still here. 

DH: I knew I would survive. Because the last thing I want to do is die. My kids wouldn't have had a father. My wife wouldn't have had a husband. So I chose life. And this is what it sounds like. 

EK: For Salt Radio, I’m Emily Kwong.    

Transcript for the video

Michael Erard (Writer and Linguist): So I'm Kickstarting a magazine about language called Schwa Fire. It's Schwa Fire because everybody seems to like to say "schwa."






Say hi, Camden.



Text: Language lives and is lived. It surrounds us. It's the water we swim in. And the air we breathe. It's a great time for stories about language and how we use it. Language journalism should bring us places and show us language in people's lives. Instead we get lists and cliches. Not characters, scenes, and drama. We can do this better.

Michael Erard: So the way I like to explain things is that language journalism is sort of at the point that sports journalism was organized before Sports Illustrated came along. So there are, you know, blogs for copywriters, and blogs for word freaks, and there are blogs for grammar folks, and blogs for linguists, and translators, and all of these. But none of them are really all connected with each other, and that's what Schwa Fire is going to do: Really give all of those people, all of those different audiences one place where they can go to find stuff that's going to be about an area that they're passionate about, that they're interested in, and know that the stuff that's there is going to be really interesting and really well-done, and stuff that they want to talk about.

Patrick Cox (BBC Language Journalist, Producer: "The World in Words."): So I've been producing this podcast for the past five years on language journalism. There's quite a range of stories that we do. But what we don't do, because I work for a daily news program, is we don't spend an awful lot of time on these stories. You have to feed the beast every day that I come in. It's really... You're ripping up yesterday's story and starting over with a new one. And, you know, I hear from listeners all the time and it's very, very clear that they would like to hear longer-form treatments of the kinds of stories that I do. And that makes me realize there's an incredible appetite for this kind of journalism. And so it seems that there's a real opening for somebody to come in and satisfy this tremendous listener and consumer appetite.

Michael Erard: I think that audiences are hungry for this sort of thing and you could really get readers and listeners to pay attention and say, "wow!" To what you're talking about when you get people who really know their medium, who really know how to tell stories, and people who really know language, and who understand the detail that the audience appreciates.

Text: Schwa Fire has writers and producers who have worked for The Economist, NPR, This American Life, The New York Times, Slate Magazine, and Wired.

Nicco Mele (Founder, EchoDitto. Harvard Kennedy School): Hi, my name's Nicco. I'm a tech entrepreneur, and I love language. When Michael contacted me about this project, I got very excited. The future of publishing, the future of writing, is in niche publications focused on really compelling areas that cross a wide range of disciplines and is a model that makes sense in the digital age.

Arika Okrent (Linguist, Author: The Land of Invented Languages): I love language, and I love writing about language. To me, there's really no other subject that's as bound up with this question of what it is to be human, and I think it would be great to have a place where we can really listen, and take the time to draw those clues out, and connect these language stories to the wider human story.


Text: Language is... Communication Power Influence Relationships Meaning Entertainment Currency Sex Politics Love Loss Home Funny Money Manipulation Science Seduction Identity Control Truth Lies Perception Belief Law Rule Dissent Manners Poetry etc.


Michael Erard: Please help us create a place for stories about language. Please help us create Schwa Fire. Thank you.



Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

I've been working at the intersection of the media and the language world for over a decade, so I know how media production works and have a huge network of people who can help. People involved with Schwa Fire are all experts at the top of their fields. That said, digital publishing is always in flux, and nearly all the platforms are start-ups, which means there might be delays and glitches over which I have no control.


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