Would You Read The New Yorker If It Just Wrote About Language?

Attention, language nerds, there’s a new magazine just for you: Schwa Fire.

Would you read a 10,000-word story about a man learning how to talk again with a new larynx? Or a story about the language dynamics of adoption? Then, maybe one on the drama of hiring lexicographers? If so, then we have the (forthcoming) publication for you: Schwa Fire.


Yes, that’s the name the founding linguist, journalist, and author Michael Erard has settled on for his digital-only magazine for language nerds. Even linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer had to warm up to it.
“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.

Despite a somewhat exclusionary name, Schwa’s Kickstarter campaign claims “you won’t have to become a linguist to understand them [the stories].” But, the magazine will cater to a niche audience that finds stories about language implicitly interesting, says Erard. So: You should like language, but don’t have to have a PhD in linguistics from the University of Texas, Austin, like Erard, to understand or care about the stories.

“What’s not out there is an outlet for longform journalism about language in life,” Erard explained as his rationale for the project. The New Yorker might run two stories about language in a given year. Errard suspects there’s an audience that wants more than one definitive article on forensic linguistics.

As a child interested in language, Erard craved that kind of writing, but his search turned up only technical books. “There was no accessible but deep and intelligent way of talking about language for somebody with that set of interests,” Erard said. “This is really trying to meet that need.

Now, over 30 years later, a handful of mainstream language blogs and columnists already exist for such people. In addition to Zimmer’s WSJ column, “Word on the Street,” The Atlantic has a “Word Play” column, Slate just launched Lexicon Valley, its linguistics blog, and there’s Lingua Franca at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Those platforms often follow the news cycle: Zimmer’s latest column tracing the history of the term “glitch” was pegged to Obamacare. Slate pondered the vocal fry of the new “This Is NPR” voice. Of course, that’s not always the case: The Atlantic just wrote a “brief history of dude.”

Schwa Fire aims to feature deep reporting on stories outside of the news cycle. Erard sees the stories like those featured on This American Life, but through the lens of linguistics. “Why can’t we get Ian Frazier [of The New Yorker] to go hang out at those language camps,” he suggested. The idea sounds more like the popular podcast 99% Invisible, which looks at the world through architecture, yet manages to have wide appeal. The cultish status of that show helped its creator Roman Mars raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through Kickstarter to expand and deepen his coverage.


Erard has also turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for a bi-monthly publication he hopes to put out starting in March 2014. Even without a popular existent product, he has raised nearly $7,000 of his $25,000 goal, with a month to go. The funds will go to production and freelance fees. As a professional freelance journalist, Erard wants to pay his writers. He estimates he will offer about 50 cents a word, depending on readership and sponsorship.

The publication, which will eventually be available on a host of digital platforms–apps, e-readers, the web–won’t be free, either. Each two-story issue will cost $1.99.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.