The History Of Solresol: A Musical Attempt At A Universal Language

Let’s start at the very beginning.
Solresol represented by sheet music.

Music is sometimes called the universal language. When people say that, they usually mean that a powerful melody can cross any linguistic barriers. But what if it were more literal? What if music could actually be used to develop a system of communication that anyone, anywhere in the world could easily learn and use? That was the thought behind one of the most fascinating constructed languages of all time: Solresol.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not necessarily alone. While the language attracted a decent amount of attention when it was first demonstrated in the 19th century, it’s garnered only a niche following since then. While it may not become the universal language of the planet, it’s still an impressive example of what constructed language is and can be.

The Origins Of Solresol

Jean-Françoise Sudre was already an accomplished composer and music teacher when, in 1827, he started playing around with the idea of creating a musical language. This quest would last the rest of his life.

Sudre’s first attempt involved assigning letters to the 12 notes of the Western musical scale, which are A, A♯, B, C, C♯, D, D♯, E, F, F♯, G and G♯. He spent the next few years taking students around and showing off the language, impressing audiences with human-violin communication. This language, la Langue Musicale, could have been only a novelty, some Parisians saw a potential application for this musical language: sending secret communications at times of war.

Sudre refined his system to make it suitable for this purpose. The biggest problem he ran into was that 12 notes were far too many to be communicated across a distance, so Sudre had to refine his system down to just four. The new coded language called Telephonie was given a chance, but it never proved very useful. Even when Sudre created “tuned cannons” to project Telephonie as loudly as possible, no one was interested enough to adopt it. While Telephonie didn’t take off, it did become the source of the word “telephone,” which may have ended up being Sudre’s biggest contribution to language.

While pitching Telephonie, Sudre was also working on his original Langue Musicale. He cut down the number of notes being used from 12 to the seven tonic notes. These seven notes corresponded to solfège — do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si — a common music teaching tool in Europe. (For Sound of Music fans, you may notice that “ti” is replaced with “si” here, because that’s the syllable that was used in the solfège of the time.) These seven syllables could be combined together to create words. Solresol, for example, combines sol, re and sol, and it literally means “language.” Sudre capped these words at five syllables long, meaning that the language could have over 11,000 possible words. This is small compared to the 130,000 or so words that make up the Larousse French dictionary, but it’s still plenty to communicate with.

Sudre spent the next several decades showing off his language around the country and the continent. He also introduced other innovations, like adding Arabic and other languages to his dictionaries. Yet despite earning accolades leading up to his death in 1862, Solresol didn’t inspire many to actually learn the language. 

If it weren’t for the concerted efforts of Sudre’s widow, that may have been the end of the road. She published the guide to the language, Langue Musicale Universelle, and she continued to adjust and improve the language from there. Soon, the Societie Pour la Propagation de la Langue Musicale Universelle was set up, and the number of speakers grew during the latter half of the 19th century.

Growth didn’t last forever. In 1902, president of the societie Boleslas Gajewski put out Grammaire du Solresol, the second major book of the language. The grammar expanded on many of Sudre’s ideas and changed some of the terms, but even then the limitations of the language were becoming clearer. The number of adopters started to slow, and the language was almost entirely abandoned.

How Does The Language Work?

As mentioned, Solresol is built entirely out of seven syllables. Words and their translations weren’t picked entirely at random. Part of the appeal of the language was that there was a logic to the words that would make them easy to learn.

Short words were assigned to common words. The single syllable terms, for example, are some of the most frequently used terms in other languages:

  • do — no
  • re — and
  • mi — or
  • fa — to
  • sol — but
  • la — the
  • si — yes

Building up from there, two-syllable words were also assigned to high-frequency terms and phrases. Do-re is “I,” la-mi is “there” and so on. One of the fun aspects of this system is that switching the order of syllables can give a word’s antonym. So the opposite of fa-la (“good”) is la-fa (“bad”) and the opposite of si-mi (“good morning”) is mi-si (“good evening”).

The number of words multiplies quickly as you added syllables. There are a few hundred three-syllable words, which were assigned to other simple terms, but the thousands of four- and five-syllable words could quickly get messy. Sudre decided that this could be simplified by grouping words into seven categories. The first syllable in these longer words would tell you what category a word is in, so they’d be easier to remember. These were the categories, or “keys,” chosen:

  • do — aspects of humanity and their nourishment
  • re — the family, the household and clothing
  • mi — actions and flaws
  • fa — war, travel and farming
  • sol — art and science
  • la — industry and commerce
  • si — government and society

These may seem a bit strange, but admittedly it’s hard to divide all of language into seven categories. While Sudre gave meaning to a lot of words, he never defined many of the possible five-syllable Solresol words. That way, the language would still have room to grow.

There are also features added in to express the grammar of the language. To make a noun plural, the last syllable is held longer in speech and given an acute accent in writing. For tense, a verb is preceded by another word, which is usually a repeated syllable, like do-do for the preterite and fa-fa for the conditional. Want to change a word’s part of speech, like changing the verb “to walk” to the noun “a walk”? That’s indicated by stressing different syllables in the same word.

While all of this is neat, what makes Solresol so unique is that it can be transformed into other forms. The language has specific symbols that can be used, it can correspond to the seven colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), and there’s a set of sign language symbols. In the early 20th century, proponents of Solresol hoped that the language would be used by “deaf-mutes,” because the seven syllables could easily correspond to seven parts of a person’s hand, thus creating a tactile language. And of course, you could also play the language as music. Not very good music, but music all the same.

The Problem With Solresol

Despite the language’s flexibility, Solresol never caught on. It had detractors from its earliest days, and they never went away. When you actually try to use the language, it doesn’t take long to run into its limitations.

The problem that first arises is that it’s very hard to understand in a spoken form. The finite syllables — though central to the idea of its simplicity — end up making words sound very similar. It’s all too easy to get things jumbled. Plus, there’s no defined way to break between words. While this is fine in other spoken languages, it makes Solresol extremely difficult to parse, especially when spoken quickly. Early proponents of the language said you should take a “dramatic pause” between words, which slows down communication significantly.

Another issue, which is the issue that many constructed languages have, is that it’s inflected by the native language of its creator. If the goal of Solresol was to make a language anyone in the world would easily be able to learn, it fails in this regard. The French influences are apparent, from the lack of a word for 70 (French has soixante-dix, or “sixty-ten”) to the underlying Subject-Verb-Object word order.

There’s also the problem of the language being limited. Its limited nature is of course part of its design, and if the point is to use Solresol for simple conversations, it’s fine. But for a language to grow and become more widely adopted, it needs to be more versatile. And with Solresol capped at around 10,000 words, there’s not unlimited room for growth.

Lastly, there’s the issue faced by every constructed language: it’s very hard to get people to agree to learn a new language en masse. Even Esperanto, arguably the most successful attempt at a constructed language, has at most around 2 million speakers today. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a constructed language to be widely adopted, but it’s an uphill battle.

Does Anyone Use This Language Today?

Solresol was given a boost in attention thanks to the internet. People had been rediscovering the language for a while, and websites were a way for them to connect from all around the world. Today, you can find a few small learning communities around the web with people invested in Solresol.

As recently as 2017, Solresol enthusiasts attempted to get the language recognized by SIL International, which is the largest group recording and studying languages in existence. They rejected the attempt, however, on the grounds that it’s not spoken within a large and diverse community. SIL International also tries to keep track of how many speakers every language has. Because Solresol isn’t counted, there’s no official estimate as to how many people are using the language today.

That said, the enthusiasts for the language remain. The website posts regular updates on the language, and has collected resources for people who want to learn more about the history and grammar of the language. It’s very much a niche phenomenon, but Solresol’s quirkiness and simplicity have continued to attract attention. There might not be a day where we see Solresol spoken widely, but it’s also not going away any time soon.

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