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Solresol

Meet the most colorful and musical conlang
by Joana Bourlon

Are constructed languages “real” languages ?

Some people would say yes, since just like “real” languages, conlangs conform to their own grammar, and their own syntactical, morphological and pronunciation rules.

Others would argue that conlangs and ‘actual’ languages share one great dissimilarity that sets them apart : ‘real’ languages (such as English) evolve in a natural setting and tend to reflect the culture of their speakers. Thus, if the main purpose of a constructed language is universality (as is the case of Esperanto for instance), it can never be fully achieved, as once a conlang gains more and more popularity, it will start adapting to the culture at hand, will start changing at different local levels and ergo cease being universal.

Why bother creating a constructed language ?
In his book The Dictionary of Made-up Languages, Stephen D. Rogers presents many valuable reasons for constructing a language, such as giving oneself a challenge, giving depth to a fictional civilization, exploring ideas “such as how a society might be if the native tongue contained no words having to do with time”, offering a language that is nationally neutral, allowing communication between speakers of other languages, and of course, fixing faults in the languages that already exist.

Solresol, arguably one of the first documented conlangs, was invented in the 19th century by composer and music teacher François Sudre, and covers at least three of the reasons listed above.

Firstly, Sudre really took up the challenge he gave himself : he started working on the Solresol language in 1817, and arguably continued working on it up to his death in 1862. What started as a remote communication system using the sounds of musical instruments, was later proposed to (and rejected by) the military as an encoding system.
Nevertheless, Sudre continued to develop Solresol until it ended up becoming one of the first truly universal languages, preceding Esperanto by more than 60 years.
Not only that, but solresol also managed to fix a major flaw in language : the lack of a certain level of inclusivity. Solresol was devised in a way that made it possible for people with visual and/or hearing impairments, as well as people with mutism to communicate with everyone using Solresol.

So, how does Solresol work ?

Structure
Solresol is based on the solfège musical scale : Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol (sometimes called ‘So’), La, Si (or sometimes ‘Ti’). You may also be familiar with another form, known as the major C scale : C, D, E, F, G, A, B (but this scale is not used when communicating in Solresol).

Each note in Solresol corresponds to a color : just like a rainbow, the first note of the scale Do (or C) is red, and the last one Si (Ti or B) is violet. What’s in between also follows the rainbow color pattern : Re is orange, Mi is yellow, Fa is green, Sol is blue and La is indigo.
In order to construct a word, you need to choose from the 7 notes and put them together. For example, Monday in Solresol is Sol-Sol-Do. There’s a certain sequentiality that’s inherent to Solresol : SolSolRe means Tuesday, SolSolMi gives you Wednesday, SolSolFa – Thursday, and so on. Another example of solresol’s sequentiality can be found in the personal pronouns : DoRe means ‘I’ or ‘we’, DoMi means ‘you’, DoFa – ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’.

Another neat feature of SolReSol is the grouping of word-meanings by note. Each word begins with a note and every first note of the word represents a group of concepts :

Note,Corresponding Color ,Group meaning,Example of a word,Translation
Do , red,People, food, qualities,dolafala,bread
Re , orange,Family, Home, Clothes,resifasi,brother
Mi , yellow,A person’s actions, esp. their faults,milasila,To conclude; conclusion; solution
Fa , green,Sea, Travel, War, country,fasollasi,boat
Sol (or So), blue,Arts & Science,siremimi,physics
La , indigo,Industry & Commerce ,ladomire,shop
Si (or Ti) , violet,Politics & government,sirelado,senator

Note Corresponding Color Group Meaning

Solresol also offers a rather elegant way to construct antonyms, by reversing the order of the syllables. For example, MiSiSol means good fortune while SolSiMi means misfortune. Following the same logic, DoMiSolFa means intelligence, but FaSolMiDo means stupidity or inability.

Writing

There are multiple ways you can write in SolReSol : you can transcribe the syllables of the notes that compose your words (as we’ve seen so far in this article), you can use just the first letter of each music syllable (you can write ‘fasollasi’ as ‘fsols’, keeping in mind that Si can be shortened to ‘s’, and Sol can be shortened to ‘so’), you can also write in Solresol by using the musical scale on the three or the usual five lines.

After Sudre’s death, Vincent Gajewski – president of the commitée for the study and advancement of Solresol – invented a stenography containing 7 simple symbols to reflect Solresol. The symbols on their own are rather easy to reproduce, but in order to form a word they need to be bound together. For short words it’s rather easy to use this script. For instance, in order to write ‘dore’ (meaning ‘I’) you need to make a circle and put a line on top of it. For longer words you need to put in more effort : for example in order to write mifamifa (laziness) you need to draw a semi circle (as a little frown without the eyes) attach a backslash to it, then attach a semicircle, and the attach a backslash. This seems to be a bit much for expressing “laziness” (as ironically, is the three-syllable English word for it).

Speaking

Do Solresol speakers need to be able to sing in order to speak solresol ?
OK, confession time. The title of this article is perhaps a bit misleading. Even though SolReSol employs the seven music syllables to represent the sounds available in the language, SolResol is not exactly a musical language.
For one, you don’t really need to pitch your voice lower or higher when speaking in Solresol. You just need to pronounce the syllables.
What’s more, there isn’t really a distinctive melody forming along while speaking (or playing) solresol in a musical manner : you can try this for yourself by playing (or singing if you can) DoRe MiLaSol SolReSol (or if you feel like it you can type ‘io pcx c pxpc’ into this virtual piano website). Congrats ! You’ve just said ‘I love language’ in Solresol. Up to you to decide if there’s any melody in that sentence.

You can also communicate in SolReSol without uttering a sound. To do this, you can either trace in the air the 7 stenographic signs invented by Vincent Gajewski (see above), or you can touch different places of your left hand (or the left hand of your interlocutor if you want to be understood without making any sound or visible signs) with your right index in order to communicate. For example, to say ‘Sir’, you need to touch the tip of your middle finger and then the tip of your ring finger.

Another possible way of communication can be done with color. Imagine I’m showing you a yellow flag, followed by a violet one, then a yellow one, and finally a red flag. Thanks !

Milasila

Do you know any Solresol native speakers ? Me neither.
There are many probable reasons for this phenomenon.
For one, when going deeper into the grammar, Solresol doesn’t seem as logical as we’d wish it to be. For example, in order to differentiate feminine-gendered words from masculine or neutral ones, you need to prolongate the last sound of the word : for example in order to say ‘sister’, the word is the same as for brother, i.e. ‘resifasi’. In writing, this difference can be indicated by a small line on top of the last letter. In speaking you need to put an accent on the last sound of the word and thus pronounce resifasi-i. If you are communicating by touching your interlocutor’s left hand, things can get awkward pretty fast.

Another possible explanation is the limited number of words. Solresol contains a grand total of 2 660 words. That comes as no surprise given that the building blocks are only seven. In comparison, in English the number of estimated words in use is around 171 000, and this figure does not account for obsolete or lost words.

Lastly, the most probable reason for the relatively limited number of Solresol speakers can be found, again, in the fact that Solresol didn’t develop naturally to reflect a given culture.
Despite Solresol’s many qualities and potential, one of the main reasons people learn languages is to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. But who knows what the future holds ? Maybe one day Solresol could dethrone English as the lingua franca.

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