A world/continent/land/place/location where language has developed slightly differently from earth. Instead of communicating through normal speech, these beings communicate in a combination of vocabulary and pitch, almost like a song if you will. This means that one word can have several different meanings based on context and pitch. (For the purpose we can assume the people who speak this language aren't tone deaf and are all except very few able to keep proper pitch while communicating.

My question about this is how the written language would look like. Can written text somehow incorporate the right pitches for each word or even syllable? Is it even feasible to structure a written language based on this concept that has any practical applications or would communication likely take another turn? If written text is feasible, I'd like to avoid a massive alphabet like the Chinese.

  • $\begingroup$ Vocabulary - do you mean volume? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 23, 2017 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ I mean words, just like we use in our spoken language. $\endgroup$
    – Hyfnae
    Jul 23, 2017 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ In a word, Chinese. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 24, 2017 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ Tonal languages cover more than Chinese languages but this is good video about the Chinese language family. youtube.com/watch?v=QY0AMmLuiqk His channel is very informative. $\endgroup$
    – RomaH
    Jul 24, 2017 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ Every language i know of conveys meaning throu intonation/pitch and context. Chinese was names as being a language which doesn't have many different syllables and thus many words have many different meanings. It's a language relying heavily on context. $\endgroup$
    – BlueWizard
    Jul 25, 2017 at 4:57

7 Answers 7


Just to clarify: tonal languages and pitch-accented languages already work like this. Speakers need not be able to keep perfect pitch in order to speak them properly since pitch/tone are always relative. Real-life languages work on the basis of contrasts between features and pitch/tone is no exception. Words in such a language are distinguished by pitch/tone in the same way as they are distinguished by the order and quality of their phonemes.

Writing systems can and do incorporate a lot of information but also leave out many details. No writing system perfectly transcribes a language, be it tonal or not (it's simply not possible). There's nothing in a tonal/pitch-accented language that says it must have a terribly complicated writing system. In particular, there's nothing that says a tonal language must resort to Chinese-style characters; Chinese characters do not, in fact, convey tonal information per se.

Some real world examples:

  • Thai (which is tonal) has 44 consonant letters and 9 vowel letters, plus five tone marks. It's not the easiest orthography but it's not remotely as complex as Chinese characters.
  • Vietnamese (also tonal) has 29 letters in all, plus 5 tone marks (the sixth tone is unmarked). The script is based on the Latin alphabet and looks fairly confusing when diacritics pile up, but it's more regular than English.
  • The Tibetan alphabet is used to write some tonal languages, even though Tibetan had no tone when the script was invented; tone is not indicated by special marks but can be usually deduced from the spelling, since some letters indicate sounds that are no longer pronounced but have evolved into tones.
  • Japanese (which is a pitch-accented language) employs a mixture of Chinese characters and syllabic characters, none of which convey any information on pitch whatsoever. True, there are very few minimal pairs, so there's very little room for confusion.
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Even english uses it to a lesser extent, how do you indicate a question in spoken english, by raising your pitch at the end of sentence. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 24, 2017 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ Vietnamese orthography is not quite confusing because there are maximum 2 diacritics per letter (one for modifying the vowel sound and one for the tone) and 3 for the whole syllable $\endgroup$
    – phuclv
    Jul 24, 2017 at 8:30
  • $\begingroup$ @LưuVĩnhPhúc Oh, I'm sure of that, I only pointed out it looks confusing for someone not used to diacritics. $\endgroup$
    – pablodf76
    Jul 24, 2017 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Writing represents pronounciation, it does not attempt to transcribe it. For example, there is a Chinese topolect / Sinitic language, Dungan, spoken in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which is written with the plain Cyrillic alphabet. Tones are simply not represented in writing, in the same way that the position of dynamic stress is not represented in English spelling. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 24, 2017 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I would say that Vietnamese script would only appear confusing to people who aren't familiar with reading diacritics. Seemed easy enough for me. $\endgroup$ Jul 24, 2017 at 14:01

The easy answer is "Yes you can." It'd been done at least once for every tonal language out there.

The difficult part is how do we describe it, given our world is heavily dominated by the Latin alphabet. In our world, we use diacritics to convey information which is not readily available in the latin alphabet. For example, we may put a bar over the top of a letter to indicate that it is in a higher register, or a dot below to indicate that it's lower.

There is no one rule for how to do this. It typically is up to the linguist communicating with the native speakers to come up with a way to use this extra symbology in a way that makes sense to the native speakers.

You mention Chinese, but it may be worth noting that the Chinese have many ways of writing. When you talk of a "massive alphabet," I assume you mean the hànzì characters (汉字) which are associated with the meaning of the word rather than its sound. They also have pīnyīn (拼音), which is a Latinized alphabet for writing down the sound of words. In pīnyīn, the tonal content of the Chinese language is conveyed with markers above the vowels, ī í ǐ ì and i are examples of the vowel /ɨ/ in different tones.

Of course, all of this is based on the fact that the Latin alphabet dominates modern languages. This means we adapt tonal languages to our existing alphabet, instead of inventing new alphabets. Without this Latin dominance, you should expect your cultures to invent something more natural for their language. But you absolutely should assume they can write it. There's nothing about tonal languages that prevent writing.

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    $\begingroup$ Chinese can also be written in Bopomofo with a bit different tone marks (commonly used in Taiwan). Tones in Chinese are also sometimes indicated by numbers, which are AFAIK more common in Hongkong $\endgroup$
    – phuclv
    Jul 24, 2017 at 8:35

The previous two answers are absolutely correct: many existing human languages are tonal to greater or lesser degrees, and many of those have writing systems that indicate tone (what you've referred to as pitch). The examples given thus far mostly talk about diacritics, so let me mention another option.

In a language with several distinct tones that convey important distinctions between words, tone is just as important a component of speech as the consonants and vowels. So why not give each tone its own letter? There is precedent in existing languages:

  • Some orthographies mark tones with numerals. Some native languages of Mexico are written this way, at least by linguists. Chinese tones can be marked using numbers, but the diacritic method is more common now.
  • One romanization of the Hmong language uses various Latin consonants at the ends of syllables to mark tones (e.g. high tone is marked with b, low tone with s, and so forth). The system is not ambiguous because Hmong syllables never end in a consonant sound.
  • I remember reading about an African language that uses punctuation marks for the tones, but 10 minutes on Google didn't turn up what I was looking for. Edit: Found it! I was thinking of Dan, aka Yacouba/Yakuba. Tone marks (placed before a syllable) include ", -, and =. For example, -ta is a word meaning surface, but "ta is a different word meaning to walk.

For your language, there are two main ways you can derive tone letters:

  • If this society borrowed the writing system of another culture, they could adapt existing letters (or other symbols) as tone markers, like in the examples above. Consider, as a parallel case, how the Greeks took Semitic consonants they didn't need and made them into vowel letters.
  • If this society invented a writing system from scratch, or even if they adapted somebody else's, they could create new letter-forms for tone letters. A parallel case is the symbol for bilabial click, ʘ, which (as I understand it) was just made up to represent that sound.

If you take the second option, an interesting possibility is letters that indicate the pitch of each tone by their shape. The Chao tone letters, used in linguistics, do just that: ˥ is a high tone, ˧ is middle, ˩ is low, ˧˩ is mid-falling, and so forth. (You can do this with diacritics too, if your tone system is simple enough: mark a high tone above the vowel and a low tone below, for example.) Letters in an actual language aren't likely to be quite so precise, but it wouldn't be surprising to see something like like L for low tone and Γ for high tone.

  • $\begingroup$ Vietnamese telex also uses ending consonants to indicate the tone as well as all Vietnamese characters $\endgroup$
    – phuclv
    Jul 24, 2017 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ The letter G is traditionally credited to S Carvilius Ruga, who took the letter C and added a vertical stroke at its end in order to disambiguate the voiceless and the voiced sounds which, until then, used the same letter. $\endgroup$
    – Wtrmute
    Jul 24, 2017 at 19:33

Take a look at Hebrew. The letters are all consonants, vowel sounds are taken care of by modifier symbols/characters associated with the consonant character(s).

This page - http://www.jewfaq.org/alephbet.htm - has a good explanation of how it works. Here's a visual sample using the Alef character, which is typically silent and only exists to allow a vowel sound to take place -

examples of vowel sounds/modifiers for hebrew writing

So instead of providing a vowel sound, your "pointing" system could indicate tonality, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ You deserve more upvotes, your answer combined with the highest one have given me the ideas I need to make everything happen, special shoutout to you <3 $\endgroup$
    – Hyfnae
    Jul 24, 2017 at 16:30

At least one language has developed sets of diacritic markings specifically for a formal sung notation rather than just tone, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantillation .

In this case the marks add information about the tonal phrasing of the syllables they mark; it would fit well with a tonal language that needed marking to indicate vocabulary.

What is interesting in this case is that the musical /tonal markings themselves have a considerable grammar and meaning (see 2nd half of link) which parallels the question here since it adds meaning distinct from that of the plain words themselves.


There are two ways the Sino-Vietnamese solved this problem:

  1. diacritical marks (dots on top on bottom in Vietnamese, accents in Chinese).
  2. alphabetic notations, such as duplicated vowels, appended 'h' or 'r's, etc.

The former method separated tonal structire from pronunciation, while the latter (intentionally) paid homage to the likely origin of tonal Sino-Tibetan: the conversion of several complicated consonant combinations into pitch changes. (For instance, "zlambs" becoming "lahmmmm" in a lilting tone, etc)

(Tibetans just simplified withlut adding tones and ended up with a damned confusing language)


Look at the sheet music for any song: it has pitch and vocabulary encoded in it. You just need a few note symbols &c in addition to your normal alphabet. Or you could compress it by using a syllabary (like Japanese kana), and writing the symbols at the positions notes would take.


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