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It took us two tries, but we managed to record an episode focusing entirely on tone systems.  Learn about how tonal languages work, how they develop historically, and a few little bits you can play with.

Top of Show Greeting: Frenkisch

Links and Resources:



Hi George & co
After several months, I have finally caught up with all the Conlangery podcasts. I’m very impressed that you’ve kept them going so long and kept the standard up.
Can I suggest another area you might like to look at – language contact, particularly creoles and pidgins. A lot of conlangers model change within a family but there’s not many conlangs with more than one ancestor. Creoles and pidgins with their restricted vocabulary, morphology and word order might be good for beginners or for someone looking for a quick, fun project. Yet they can form larger projects to, e.g. if different registers are taken into account. You could base one on real world languages or on conlangs.
There’s some theoretical debate to be had there, too – Bickerton and other universalists versus those who favour socio-cultural explanations.

<Removed some links from the email for brevity, though those may surface in a future episode on creoles and pidgins>

8 Responses to “Conlangery #81: Tone”

  1. CMunk

    The “illegal coda consonant” is also called a tone letter. I’ve used this system for my conlang Mhmmz (click my name to go to the blog). The absence of a letter is low tone, l is high tone, z is rising tone and j is falling tone. I chose this model because my vowels are n, m and q, and putting diacritics on these required combining characters, that don’t always show up nicely.

    • MBR

      Ah yes, I thought I recognized the idea of tone letters. I’ve looked at Mhmmz before on deviantART and on your blog. Very intriguing. I might actually make my voice students learn some basics so that they can get used to manipulating the soft palate.

  2. MBR

    George hit the nail on the head with tone deafness; in my experience, it’s a strictly vocal “condition” where there’s an inability to control the muscles of the larynx for singing purposes, similar to dysgraphia (my brother has dysgraphia and is also “tone deaf”, resulting from fine-motor problems). People who are tone deaf can learn relative (musical) pitch through practice, and they can even learn how to sing. (I’ve never taught a tone-deaf student, but I’ve heard stories from another voice teacher.) Somebody who’s tone-deaf can easily learn to play a stringed instrument, a woodwind, or a keyboard instrument, though they’ll have trouble with brass instruments without learning first to sing.

    For my upcoming conlang Ponese, I was going to go with a tonal, isolating language featuring contour tones, but I think I might go for a simpler 2-tone or 3-tone system and a more complicated syllable structure. It might be a little bit easier. I still think I’ll use tones phonemically for lexical distinction, and I don’t know whether I’ll keep the isolating morphology idea.

  3. Panglott

    Another resource I love for learning about the sounds of less-commonly-taught languages are the FSI Language Courses. They always start the first chapter with a number of drills clearly distinguishing the phonemes of the language—at least the ones that are more difficult for native American English speakers. And they cover a number of African languages like Yoruba/Igbo/Hausa/&c. They were about the only place I could find that clearly demonstrated the initial co-articulated stops in contrast with plain stops in a way that I could train my ear to hear them. The quality is a little poor since they are digitized from audiocassettes, but it can be a good resource.

  4. Panglott

    Actually, I wonder if you’re overstating the difficulty of making a creole. Y’all are saying that you have to create two full languages in order to to create a creole from them, that really the case?

    On a basic level, creoles often take significant vocabulary from one language, a number of basic grammatical rules from another language to create a very simple structure, then elaborate internally from that small stock via means such as reduplication and ideophones. Creoles like Tok Pisin, for example, you have mostly English as the lexical input but, since it’s used as a lingua franca among speakers of the very diverse Papuan languages, can anyone determine all the grammatical/substrate influences on the language? Check out how many different languages Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin draws from in the Wikipedia example.

    So first you’d have to make a lexifier language, but it’s probably not necessary (at a basic level) to specify the grammar in detail. It could be a shameless relex of English or another language, or just a sketch with well worked-out phonotactics and a word generator. You’d need a process to nativize this vocabulary into the creole, which means that you’d want an idea of the phonology of the substrate language. And as far as grammar goes, the easiest thing to do would be to take “generic creole grammar”, with the sort of common features held to be universal as part of the language bioprogram theory, or the creole prototype—regardless of what you think of those theories, of course 😉

    For this purpose, Pacific creoles may make an easier model than Atlantic creoles. And I’d love to see some comparative work on North American pidgins like Chinook Jargon, Mobilian Jargon, Broken Slavey, or non-European creoles like Nagamese creole.

    Making a whole post-creole continuum, OTOH, seems like it would be a ton of work and definitely require two or more very well worked-out languages.

  5. David Johnson

    It was good to hear you read out my suggestion of an episode on creoles, etc., especially on my birthday, so thanks for that! As you said on the podcast, the fun of modelling some kind of language contact is that you can bring very different languages together and see what happens. As you’re considering doing an episode, I’ll see what other links I can dig out that might help.

  6. James

    Something that was mentioned in this podcast that piqued my curiosity was talk of a tone system on a language’s syllables plus intonation at sentence level, and the interplay between the two. This isn’t something I know much about, so I’ll have a little dig around and see what I can find. Maybe you could discuss it further in a later podcast?

    Also, speaking of writing tones with consonants or numerals at the end of a syllable, a there was a way of writing the Zhuang languages (relatives of Thai spokes in China) in the late 1950s that used modified Latin, Cyrillic and IPA letters that resembled the numerals previously used to write tones. See here, and also the examples beneath on that page.


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