Solresol: A Synopsis

Introductory Notes
Lexical System
Syllabic Reversal
Word Order
Derivational Systems
Gender and Number
Parts of Speech
A note about the derivational systems

Introductory Notes

In some cases there are conflicting reports on how Solresol works, especially when comparing Gajewski to Couturat and Leau. I have generally given Gajewski priority on the grounds that he was Secretary General of the Solresol society in Paris, while Couturat and Leau were outsiders who were openly disdainful of the project.


Solresol has only seven "segmental phonemes": do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si. [It may seem silly to call them phonemes, but from a proper functional standpoint, they are.] Accent, consonant length, and (perhaps) vowel length are also phonemic.

Lexical System

Words are generated according to two principles: a priori schemas and syllabic reversal. The schemas are based on the number of syllables, the presence or absence of repeated notes, and the first syllable of the word.

Monosyllables and bisyllables don't fit the schemas adopted for longer words; they are reserved mostly for high-frequency words and phrases. Syllabic reversal is also seldom applied.

Repeated notes are consecutive: rsoff (hammer) contains repeated notes; lflf (liter) does not. The following table summarizes the schemas:

Single NotesRepeated Notes
DOMan, faculties, good qualities, foodReligion
REClothing, household, familyConstruction, trades
MIHuman actions, bad qualitiesAdverbs, prepositions, conjunctions
FACountry, agriculture, war, sea, travelSickness, medicine
SOLArts, sciencesSickness, medicine
LAIndustry, commerceIndustry, commerce
SISociety (gov't, finance, police)Legal matters

Syllabic Reversal

The principle of syllabic reversal frequently disrupts these schemas. Syllabic reversal involves reversing the order of syllables to create an antonym, as fsms (advance) and smsf (retreat). Such reversals create forms whose meaning is determined by the original word rather than by their first syllable; fsms is presumably a military term, but its antonym smsf should concern society. (Come to think of it, maybe it does ;)


Word Order

This is quickly dealt with. The basic orders are Subject-Verb-Object and Noun-Adjective. (Determiners precede their head, however, as do numbers.) The subject pronoun and verb are inverted in questions. Non-pronominal subjects probably are changed to topics and repeated as pronominal subjects, as in French: L rsmr sdf. The brother begins. L rsmr, sdf-df? The brother, begins-he?

Derivational Systems

Gender and Number

Solresol has two genders: feminine and non-feminine. The non-feminine is unmarked; the feminine is marked by modifying the final vowel in some fashion. Gajewski calls this modification renforcement, which may mean simply stressing it; however, he indicates it in a couple of places by doubling the vowel. Whether this is actual repetition or merely lengthening is open to question; I would lean toward lengthening (by analogy with the plural), but Couturat and Leau (35) say that the vowel is repeated. In any event, the written form has a macron over the vowel, if the syllables are written out, or over the abbreviation, if the shorthand is used:

sisol/sso sisool/sso¯
mister missus/Mrs.
sila/sl silaa/sl¯
master, young man miss

The plural is indicated by doubling (lengthening) the first consonant of the final syllable; this is marked in writing with an acute accent or apostrophe after the letter. The plural sign precedes the mark of the feminine--presumably because the plural affects the consonant, while the feminine affects the following vowel. Thus, sso/sisol mister, ss'o/sis'ol messers; but sso¯/siso¯l Mrs., ss'o¯/sis'o¯l mesdames.

Parts of Speech

Like Esperanto, Solresol forms various (not all) parts of speech from a single base; unlike Esperanto, this base is always the verb, and the change is made through accentuation. Thus, from the root rsoml continue, we derive (capitalizing the accented letter)

rsomlcontinue (v) [no accent]
Rsomlcontinuation (n [action/thing])
rSOmlcontinuer (n [person])
rsoMlcontinual (adj)
rsomLcontinually (adv)

Note that rSOml is a noun referring to a person; Anton Sherwood (dasher@NETCOM.COM) quotes Drezen (Historio de la Mondolingvo) as giving an adjectival meaning for this form. (Actually he gives sRls (constituent, establisher) the meaning konstituanta (konsistiga), though Drezen earlier says, "Kiam iu vorto estis verbo, tiam la nomo de la objekto, persono, adjektivo kaj adverbo, devenanta de tiu verbo, formigxis per akcento sur la 1a, 2a, 3a kaj 4a silabo de la vorto."--When a word was a verb, the names of the thing, person, adjective and adverb were formed by [placing] the accent on the first, second, third, and fourth syllable of the word. [emphasis mine])

Gajewski implies that there is more to the derivational system than mere stress, however; he advises speakers to emphasize the consonants "as if there were two of them." This would introduce a slight overlap between the adverb and the plural, though.

Note also (as Drezen evidently did) that this derivational system is used when the root is a verb. When the root is something else, these derivations are not always made. This may resolve a problem that perplexed Couturat and Leau (38) concerning fsolso, which they say had the sequence vaisseau, navire, brick, corvette, frégate (vessel, ship [smaller than vaisseau], brig, corvette, frigate--all types of ship). Perhaps Sudre used a different schema for this noun root. It seems more probable, however, from the way that Solresol appears to work, that the terms were given merely to demonstrate the semantic range of the form, not as derivations.)

A note about the derivational systems

I can't help wondering how serious all this is. Gajewski usually remembers to mark the plural and the feminine (I have cleaned up a few omissions of this sort in the text), but he only marks part of speech in that section of the book. None of the example texts bear any sign of this derivational system. Moreover, none of the various alternative representations of Solresol--manual, stenographic, percussive, etc.--makes any allowance for these features. All this leads me to suspect that these systems were more or less optional, i.e., facultatifs: intended to support understanding of a text or discourse, but perhaps not essential. This would fit the attitude of spoken French (in the matter of gender and number at least), which gives little concern to such matters. If Sudre had meant to insist on these matters, he likely would have repeated the signs of the feminine and plural (much as Esperanto repeats the plural), not moved them away from the noun to its determiner.
If this is so, Solresol is effectively much more analytical than even many modern projects, being in the same league as Glosa and Loglan, though with less function-marking than the latter. If the noun has some kind of determiner at all times, only the verb is open to question, and the particles would often clarify even them.
(On the other hand, one might attribute the absence of the derivational accents to a typical French dislike or disdain of word stress. I have read--I do not know personally--that French Esperantists often annoy others by ignoring the penultimate stress. Perhaps Gajewski merely forgot about the accents--though it still seems odd that such a thoroughly non-French feature as word stress could have anything but an optional, auxiliary function.)


Verbs are invariant in Solresol; tense and mood are indicated by separate particles: dd, rr, mm, ff, soso, ll, ss. The typical shorthand for these involves capitalizing the single symbol (D, R, M, F, SO, L, S).

Without a particle, the verb defaults to present indicative: dr sdf I begin.

Indicative imperfect and pluperfect, that is, an action that was either in progress or already begun at some point in the past. [This contradicts Couturat and Leau (36), who give the imperfect here and the pluperfect under R.] dr D sdf I was beginning; I had begun.

The indicative preterite (simple past) and anterior past (marking an action that immediately preceded some other past action). dr R sdf I began; [when/as soon as] I had begun. After mr (that [conj]), it indicates the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive. mr dr R sdf that I might begin; that I might have begun.

Simple future and future perfect: dr M sdf I will/shall begin; I will/shall have begun.

The conditional (present and past/perfect): dr F sdf I would begin; I would have begun.

Imperative. [Couturat and Leau agree with this, but the data seem to favor what is technically called the cohortive, a command restricted to the first person plural: SO sdf Let's begin. The normal (second person) imperative is the verb without a subject: frm dldm Be accepted! (Sois accepté!); rml rdd lsorf ldld Give [me] one meter of muslin. (Donnez un mètre de mousseline.)]

The active participle (past or present): L sdf beginning; having begun. [This may be gerundive in function, as in Beginning now, there will be no more grenade practice in the house! In this case the Esperanto equivalent would be an -ante/-inte form.]

Passive participle: S sdf begun. [Usage as above; if gerundive, Esperanto equivalent in -ite (and -ate?).]

And now, a quick English to Solresol summary:

Present indicativeUnmarked
Conditional; Perfect/past conditionalF
Future; Future perfectM
Past (ongoing act)D
Past (isolated/incipient act)R
Past perfectD
Past perfect (immediately prior act)R
ImperativeUnmarked, subjectless
Imperative (Let's -)SO
Active participleL
Passive participleS
Pluperfect subjunctivemr...R
Imperfect subjunctivemr...R

The passive is formed by placing frm before the unconjugated verb. (Do not use the passive participle!)
The subjunctive is marked by placing mr before the phrase.

For those who may wonder, yes, the last syllable is si. As the solfeggio developed in the seventeenth century, the original hexachord sequence ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la changed, ut becoming do, and a seventh note (si) being added. This latter note was itself later renamed ti in some places, I think mostly in the English-speaking world. It's a pity ti isn't used everywhere; then sol could be abbreviated s, and ti would be t.

Anyone interested in the whole story, and in scale names for non-western musical systems, should check under solfeggio and solmization in a good encyclopedia.

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Copyright © 1997, Stephen L. Rice
Last update: Nov. 19, 1997