What’s in a Name? Tone and Sound Constraints

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Here’s part 4 of our series on creating a naming language. Today we’re talking about tone and sound constraints.


Tone in language is the way you inflect a word or phrase. We don’t use tone on word basis in English, but several Asian languages (and there may be others) use it. The best known of these is Mandarin Chinese, where a change of inflection can change the meaning of a word. As an example, let’s look at the Mandarin word ma:

  • ma (flat, no intonation) means ‘mother’. There should be a bar over the ‘a’, but I’m limited by HTML’s available diacritics.
  • (rising intonation) means ‘hemp’
  • (falling then rising intonation) means ‘horse’. Actually, the circumflex on this ‘a’ should be inverted, but HTML doesn’t seem to support that.
  • (falling intonation) means ‘curse’

As you might suspect, this does make the language more complex — probably too complex for a simple naming language, but it can be a lot of fun to play with.

A simpler way of adding tone to your words is to use a pitch accent. Here you denote that the stressed syllable of a word has either a high pitch or a low pitch. Some languages that use a pitch accent are Japanese, Norwegian, as well as Latin and Ancient Greek. While there’s no reason you couldn’t use a rising then falling pitch or visa versa, it might make the language more complex than you actually want to use.

Of course you don’t have to use a pitch system. Many, many languages (including most  of the European ones) get by just fine without it.

Sound Constraints

Sound constraints can go a long way to making a language sound not only internally consistent, but also distinctive. Sound constraints help determine what can and cannot be a particular word in a specific language. For example, English speakers know that coss and trannel could possible be English words, while ctain and mtour couldn’t.

Developing sound constraints for your language is easy. Simply develop a syllable pattern. For example, my language of Keshari uses a

  • (C)V(C) constraint. Every syllable must have a vowel and there may or may not be a consonant at the beginning and/or end of the word. It cannot have two consonants or two vowels next to each other.

Make up any syllable pattern you like. Some languages even include a restricted set of letter options. For example, Mandarin Chinese has a syllable structure of

  • (C)(i,u)V(w, y, n, ng). Every syllable must have a vowel and may end with one of four sounds — w, y, n, or ng. Also, a syllable can begin with a consonant, possibly followed by an i or u.

For sake of ease, I’d suggest using a simple and very general pattern. Even something as easy as requiring a structure of CV(C) can really make your language sound unique, particularly when you pair it with and unusual phoneme frequency. These two things alone may be all you need to create your new language.

Next time we’ll cover creating an “alphabet” and a pronunciation guide.

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