Languages not meant to be spoken comprise a certain sub-category of the invented languages genre. They can be theoretical philosophical languages, explorations of the limits of language, or invented as languages spoken by aliens with different brain (or sensory) structures than us.

One of the common themes explored in unspeakable languages is center-embedding. There is no known human language that center-embeds past the first level, and it's thought that we simply can't process recursive center-embedding. (Recursive center-embedding would look like this:

The dog the stick the fire burned beat bit the cat.

Where "the stick the fire burned beat the dog" and "the dog the stick beat bit the cat" are both comprehensible, but combining them this way isn't.)

Several people, I think, have made up center-embedding languages for alien cultures.

Along a similar vein, I was trying to think of a way for a language to be head-peripheral. That is, instead of head-initial like (mostly) English, or head-final like Japanese, the head word would actually encompass its modifying phrase(s). (I couldn't get to sleep :)

A quick illustration: "of" is the head of the phrase "of the house", so it would become:

o(the house)f

This would be very hard to keep track of! Plus, half-words are somewhat ambiguous. You'd need something like the parentheses just to keep track of what level you were on, but we don't speak in parentheses (most of the time :) How to make the beginning and end of the word connected, and possibly persistent over the words in-between?

Then it hit me. A sustained lower note with other notes played over it. Each word could be a sequence of harmonies relative to a base tone (pure harmonies, of course! Which I conveniently have sheets of notes on already :) One tone within the word, near the middle, would be designated as a sustainable note which would then be held and used as the base tone for new words, should the original word become the head of a phrase.

So by the time you get deep into several phrases, you're holding this god-awful chord and playing notes over it :) Plus, since it's all pure harmonies, the actual frequencies of the notes involved depend on which harmonies have been used to build up the chord below it, guaranteeing that the language could never be played on any tunable instrument (such as piano), nor likely on any untuned instrument (like violin or trombone) due to the number of notes in the chord - in the absence of aliens with the right vocal apparatus, only a computer could play this :)

I have ideas for several kinds of rhymes and puns based on the unique phonology of the language.


Phonemes (or as I will refer to them, "tonemes") consist of pure harmonic intervals over a base tone. Please note that the example tones provided in the third column are approximate, as modern instruments are not tuned to pure intervals.

Intervals used are:

Frequency multiplier Interval name Example (base tone of middle C) Interval in cents Standard phonological gloss Sustainable?
3Octave plus fifth?High G1902pN
2OctaveHigh C1200tN
15/8Major 7thB1088zN
16/9Minor 7thB flat996kN
5/3Major 6thA884chN
8/5Minor 6thA flat814vN
5/4Major 3rdE386aY
6/5Minor 3rdE flat316eY
7/6NoneNo equivalent267rY
8/7NoneNo equivalent231nY
9/8Whole toneD204mY
16/15SemitoneC sharp112oY


Words consist of a series of "tonemes", each held for an equal length, except for a single (usually near the middle) toneme which is held twice as long or for the duration of the embedded clause. This will be referred to as the sustaining tone, and forms the base tone for any embedded clauses or modifiers. The tones before the sustaining tone will be known as the onset, and those after it as the coda.

The same toneme cannot be used twice in a row.

Tonemes eligible to be a sustaining tone range from the fifth (3/2 frequency) to the semitone (16/15 frequency). 6ths, 7ths, octaves and the high fifth are not eligible to be used as sustaining tones; even a short series of clauses in which each base tone were an octave above the previous one would quickly escape the range of human hearing (and, one presumes, that of the aliens who intone this language :)

A word about the phonological glosses

The phonological glosses given have been chosen via the following criteria:

It is hoped that this scheme will cause words which sound alike when intoned to also look alike when written, and to preserve some of the feel of the intoned word. When written, the sustaining tone will be marked with a grave accent.

I am not yet certain whether the Western ear can reliably hear the difference between 7/6 (r) and 8/7 (n), or between 8/7 (n) and 9/8 (m). For this reason a dialect of the language will be constructed which does not contain the 8/7 (n) interval.


Every phrase will be encapsulated within its head, temporally speaking; the sustaining tone of a head word will be held and used as the base tone for all the other words and phrases within the phrase. Some grammatical features which are not normally expressed as the head of a phrase, such as the definite/indefinite distinction or modal verbs, will be.

Jokes, puns and rhymes

Some fodder for jokes, puns and rhymes:

Future plans

I'm working on building a CGI page that will let the reader create sample sentences from a limited vocabulary of words, and will create a sample soundfile of the sentence using Csound, which it will then encode to mp3. Got the Csound and mp3 parts down, just need the CGI and, well, the vocabulary :)

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Last updated: 4/18/2002