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Some ideas for a completely tonal conlang

From:Fredrik Ekman <ekman@...>
Date:Monday, February 17, 2003, 15:43
The recent brief discussion about "Old Starrish" gave me inspiration to
spin off in a tangential direction and make some reflections about a
conlang where absolute pitch would be phonemic. Here is a summary of my

(Just to be on the safe side, I would like to emphasize that this is in no
way intended as a comment on or criticism of Old Starrish. I only mention
it because it provided me with the ignition which sparked off the rest.)

The Culture

The "speakers" of this hitherto unnamed language is a race of aliens from
a distant galaxy. Their vocal organs are completely different from ours (I
envision a flexible trunk-like organ where we have our mouth) and only
allow them to produce flute-like tones, plus a single "consonant" which is
like a plopping kind of sound that cannot be found in any language on
earth. They all have perfect pitch.

The Phonology

There are basically three kinds of sounds: Tones, trills and glides. A
tone is just that. A trill is a quick succession of two tones, usually no
more than a major third apart and each repeated about 3-8 times. A glide
is a gradual shift from one tone to another, usually about a fourth or a
fifth apart. Silence is also phonemic.

The complete phonological inventory (roughly comparable with a musical
scale) is not decided but probably stays within about one and a half
octave. Two immediately successive tones are never the same, yet are
rarely more than a fifth apart. Tritones are allowed (remember that is is
a tonal language, not a musical language).

Pitch and relative length of a sound combine with the three abovementioned
types to decide the phonemic value. There are three different lengths:
Short, medium (double as long as short) and long (double as long as

Speed, "quality" of sound and (to some extent) volume allow the speaker to
indicate feelings. For instance, a fast and clear sound indicates
cheerfulness whereas a sad person would speak more slowly and wheezier. A
sort of vibrato and raised volume is a sign of anger.

The single consonantal sound is used as a word separator. It is not really


The language is almost entirely isolating with only a few simple


Word order is very strict and varies only very little between different
types of phrases. Grammatical markers are important and denote, for
instance, that a question is forthcoming.

That is all I have done so far. Maybe there will never be any more than

I guess someone must have tried something similar before. If so, what
similarities and differences resulted?



Jan van Steenbergen <ijzeren_jan@...>