Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Conlang spotlight: Solresol

I've decided that there's not enough conlanging on this blog. Conlanging - as an artform, as an obsession, even as a social tool - is one of those things that end up as a mild curiosity in miscellany books or blogs. Well I think conlanging deserves better, not merely because it's my other hobby but rather because inventing and presenting a constructed language is a massive labour for their creators - who mostly (until the last 10 years or so) worked at their art/obsession/social tool outside the mainstream of polite society: a secret vice indeed, as Tolkein once referred to it.

But where to start? The obvious place would be with that Granddaddy of all conlangs, Esperanto. But I have issues with Esperanto - which have been summed up far more concisely than I could manage by others such as Justin Rye. And in any case I don't see much point in starting a series of blog articles on conlanging in such a negative way.

So instead I'll start with Solresol - a language that predates even Esperanto, and stands at No 10 in the 2005 Top 200 Conlangs List on langmaker.com. The best article I've read to date on Solresol comes courtesy of Paul Collins writing in Fortean Times, and other articles are available by typing "solresol" into Google.

A conlang, in my opinion, cannot be separated from the conlanger who devised it. One is a part of the other, even in the most commercial of products. For those rare conlangs that survive the death of their creators, there may be opportunities for supporters to imprint some of their own hopes and desires into the language, but the core language remains the coded thoughts and desires of that creator.

So what of Solresol's creator? Jean Francois Sudre was French, born in the last, stuttering years of the French monarchy before the revolution washed the streets of Paris in blood. Sometime between Napoleon Bonaparte's final exile to St Helena and Sudre's arrival in Paris (in 1822), our hero had started thinking about communication and language in a different way to other people - though given that he didn't arrive in Paris until the age of 35 his fascination may well have started much earlier. Anecdotal evidence from many conlangers seems to indicate that many catch the conlanging bug around the same time as they catch puberty - which also seems to be the time when children lose the ability to pick up languages easily. If so, then it is possible that Sudre's fascination with conlanging can be dated back to a time in French history when everything was changing: measurements, institutions, rights and freedoms - even the calendar for four years or so. If the world was changing, then why not language itself?

Sudre studied music at the Paris Conservatory and later became a music teacher. While at the Conservatory the first glimmerings of the conlang madness in our hero began to emerge into the public domain. Sudre developed a code - not tied to his native French language but rather to the letters of the Latin alphabet - which could be played on musical instruments. Tonal in form, this invention demonstrated its ability to pass messages across greater distances than the human voice could achieve. This attracted the attention of the French military, and led to Sudre developing another code - the Telephonie - for their use.

But codes aren't conlanging. Solresol took its time to emerge from Sudre's mind, and made its first tentative steps in the world around the end of the 1820s. Much of it's inventors remaining life was dedicated to perfecting the language, and promoting it's use as a universal language.

So there's the potted history of Solresol, the first of many attempts to devise an effective International Auxillary Language (IAL) during the 19th century. But how does it perform as a conlang? And how is it presented today?

The best place to view the conlang on the web is probably the Solresol webpage maintained by Stephen L Rice (though that page hasn't been updated since 1997). This page links to an html-ified version of Boleslas Gajewski's Solresol grammar published in 1902, offered both in the original French and an English translation. There are also links to some dictionaries and other resources relating to the conlang. The website is more than adequate for its purpose, simple in layout and free of unnecessary images. It is also small enough not to need a comprehensive sitemap or navigation system. The original book opens as a single webpage. If I have one criticism it would be that the page has not been updated for more than 8 years - a link to more recent articles on Solresol (such as the FT article) would have been very welcome.

The conlang itself remains unique in many of its features. I've always been fascinated by the number of ways Sudre devised for communicating the language: it can be spoken, played on a musical instrument, semaphored, displayed on flags, written in Latin and in its own alphabet, and even painted in stripes of colour! This is entirely possible because the language limits itself to just 7 constituent "letters".

Also impressive is the systematic way Sudre tackled the problem of devising words for the language. Words of 1, 2 and 3 "letters" are used for the structural parts of the language, and for common words. Most of the rest of the words are of 4 syllables and are divided into groups according to the first letter of the word - "The class of DO belongs to man, to his faculties, to his good qualities and to food.", "The words beginning with FA are are set apart for the country, agriculture, war, the sea, and travel.", etc.

There are, in my view, difficulties with the language. The method chosen to distinguish various parts of speech by means of accenting the first, second, third or last "letter" reads as very messy, especially when tied in to the shenanigans to differentiate masculine from feminine nouns, and plurals. It must work in some way as Sudre demonstrated the conlang in public on many occasions and managed to gather a large number of supporters (and speakers?) during his lifetime, but without comprehensive audio or visual examples it's difficult to see how the system pulls itself together.

And in the end, Solresol wasn't up to the job its creator intended for it. Other people developed other IALs which, either through design or better marketing, outperformed and outcompeted it. The conlang survived its creator by no more than 40 odd years, by which time it's supporters could probably fit into the proverbial telephone box. Only the books remain, and a few stattered references to the endeavour across the wastes of the internet.


  1. Anonymous10:39 pm

    Nice article! I've always been interested by Solresol, and have every now and again entertained the thought of trying to redo it as a more consistent IAL, but always gave up on the thought.

  2. Rik,

    I didn't even know such things existed. Well, I knew about Tolkein, but I thought that was more of an isolated incident. Huh. The things you learns on the internets.


  3. Fellow SolReSol speakers,
    I have some news for you - we are currently working on powerful and versatile software called
    SolReSol: The Project.
    Its aim is to make the world aware of SolReSol, help memorize the vocabulary, and, most importantly, provide visual and audio representation of the language.
    We are a small team of developers, so please take a look at our Indiegogo campaign to find out more and see the demo of the engine: http://igg.me/at/solresol