English Language Essays

Tone for Conlangers: A Basic Introduction

Aidan Aannestad is one more name on the long list of people who discovered linguistics through Tolkien, and he’s been conlanging ever since that seventh grade discovery. He’s learned a lot about linguistics since then, though, and now holds a BA in it from the University of Texas and is partway through a graduate degree. He holds himself (and sometimes others) to a very high standard of realism in his work, and he’s always striving to get a more complete perspective on the enormous variety found in the world’s natlangs. His creative output is so far mostly limited to the minimally-documented, though fairly well fleshed-out Emihtazuu language and its ancestors, but he hopes to someday increase his productivity and make a full linguistic area with multiple interacting families. He also speaks Japanese, and will happily discuss its history and mechanics for hours with anyone interested. He’s been on-and-off a member of a number of conlanging communities, and these days is most likely to be found on one of the relevant Facebook groups or lurking in the conlang mailing list.


Despite being present in a huge number of the world’s languages, phonemic tone is perhaps the most misunderstood linguistic system there is. Probably because of this, conlangs with phonemic tone are next to unheard of. This paper aims to solve those problems, by providing a basic description of how to think about tone through the framework of autosegmental phonology. It also gives an overview of variation among tone systems and how tones arise and change over time, and discusses some problems unique to conlanging with tones. The author hopes that readers will be encouraged to try creating tone systems themselves, and expand their palette of conlanging tools with one more system to play with.

Version History

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.