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There have been many attempts to create a universal language: many deserve to be forgotten, but Jean Francois Sudre's Solresol is gathering supporters after nearly 150 years. PAUL COLLINS describes the persistent inventor and the astonishing scope of his invention.

Imagine for a moment a universal language, translatable to colour, melody, writing, touch, hand signals, and endless strings of numbers. Imagine now that this language was taught from birth to be second-nature to every speaker, no matter what their primary language. The world would become saturated with hidden meanings. Music would be transformed, with every instrument in the orchestra engaged in simultaneous dialogue.

The rise and fall of voice in a conversation could carry a subtext, with the internal melody of speech expressing an entirely opposite or hidden sentiment. Skilled speakers could employ a sort of musical counterpoint to their words, with meanings running in parallel, in contrast, or commenting parenthetically upon their own words even as they uttered them. Textiles would be elaborate documents, actual texts again. The variegated strands of colour in curtains, rugs, and dresses would reveal, upon inspection, entire hidden passages of literature. Numbers would become a language in and of themselves, whether through telegraphic taps or through details as mundane as the pattern of nails across floorboards, rivets in beams, or the arrangement of phone numbers – all would hold a thought frozen within them.

But you need not imagine this language, for another man has already done it for you. His name was Sudre. Born in the French village of Albi in 1787, Jean Francois Sudre attended the Paris Conservatory and became a music instructor in Soreze. At least five years before Sudre moved to Paris in 1822, he had turned his attentions from music lessons to the ambitious notion of developing a universal language comprised of music. The first breakthrough came in Paris, where one day he rapidly sketched out a system of transposing letters to different musical notes; it was not so much an independent musical language as a code for transmitting existing languages.

By late 1823, Parisians began to hear of this strange man and his stranger invention, the langue musicale. He spent 1824 with his two young prodigies, Ernest Deldevez and Charles Lasonneur, drilling them in playing and listening to his musical alphabet. The trio toured France the following year, with the two children fighting each other on stage to answer queries from Sudre’s violin.

The greatest interest in Sudre’s code came, predictably, from the military. However, there was a problem; a military clarion can only produce four pitches, not the twelve that his language relied on. Sudre spent the next two years ratcheting his language down to just four notes. He also had a new name for it: the Telephonie. Trials of the Telephonie were held on two hilltops in December 1829, with clarions accurately relaying such cheerful messages as “You will destroy the bridge at 6 am.” The officers were impressed by the inventor’s tenacity, but in their subsequent report conceded that the Telephonie would be “only very rarely useful.”

Sudre continued refining and reinventing his musical alphabet. He even demonstrated that he could teach the basics of the language in just 45 minutes. But the problem, as repeated reports stressed, was that no instrument could project a sufficient distance in all weather conditions for the listener to clearly perceive each note. Scrambling for a solution, Sudre demonstrated the Telephonie to the French Navy with an instrument hooked into air compressors for maximum volume. He was warmly complimented, and a commission recommended that he receive a 50,000 franc reward.

By now Sudre had spent twenty years and a whopping 32,000 francs of his own money on the Telephonie, but the Navy reward never materialized. In desperation, he demonstrated to the French Army a system of tuned cannons to communicate messages at an earthshaking magnitude. But still he had no takers, and he began to wonder whether the military was really the best venue for his work.

“While I was still working on the application of my method, either for the use of the army or for the navy, a philanthropic idea dominated my thoughts,” Sudre later recalled. “It was an idea of generalizing this method of communication and using it for all the people of Europe.”

Sudre also began to reconsider the basis of musical language. He had shifted his Telephonie from a 12-note chromatic scale to the seven “natural” notes, immediately familiar to anyone – Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si (Today we use Ti instead of Si, which was the name given to the 7th note in Sudre’s time in many non-English speaking countries). Beginning around 1829, Sudre used this seven-note alphabet to develope La Langue Musicale Universelle – an entire language in its own right, with its own grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. Each note of the scale acts as a basic unit of language. Combine three of these units together – Sol, Re, and Sol – and you get a word like Solresol. In Sudre’s language, this word means ‘language’... and eventually, it was the name applied to his ambitious invention.

Sudre limited his words to a five syllable maximum, yielding 11,732 possible words. For maximum efficiency, Sudre banned synonyms from his language. His vocabulary is also structured so that reversing the order of syllables reverses the meaning of the word, such as in Misol (Good) and Solmi (Evil). Sudre created five classes of words for his Solresol vocabulary, comprised respectively of anywhere from one to five syllables. Sensibly enough, the one syllable words – of which there can only be seven – are for the most common uses:

no, not
at, to

The 49 possible permutations of two syllable words mostly cover pronouns like I (DoRe) and particles like this (FaMi). They also include some of the more common phrases of speech, like Good Night (MiSi). The 336 permutations of three syllable words are wholly given over to common conversational terms, like rain (SiSiDo), husband (MiSiFa), or want (FaSiFa). As any lottery-player knows, once you get to 4 or 5 variables, the number of permutations rises dramatically. The four syllable vocabulary (with 2,268 words) and the five syllable vocabulary (with 9,072 words) dwarf the rest.

Given the enormous number of four syllable words, some system of organization was needed. With the language’s musical basis in mind, Sudre established a system of keys for these longer words, where the first syllable indicates its subject manner. Thus DoReDoFa (head) is much closer in meaning to DoReDoSi (hair) than to a word starting in a different key, like FaSiReDo (railroad). But with hundreds or thousands of words present in even just one key, though, the keys are necessarily broad:

Physical and Moral Aspects of Humanity
Family, Household, and Dress
Human Actions
Agriculture, War, and Travel
Arts and Science
Industry and Commerce
Government, Law, and Society

Sudre also tried to apply logical design to grammar. Word order in Solresol is simple: Subject-Verb-Object, and Noun-Adjective. Plurals are indicated by lengthening the first consonant of the final syllable: saying ‘Doremmmi’ for DoReMe would indicate that you mean ‘days’ and not the singular ‘day’. And finally, parts of speech are indicated by which syllable is stressed:

to slander (no accent)

You’ll notice there’s just one verb – the infinitive ‘to slander’. That’s because there are no verb tenses to memorize. Instead, you use a word before the verb (usually a double syllable like sisi or rere) to indicate past, present, and future, and so forth: an innovation that would delight any student who’s ever had to slog through index cards crammed with verb conjugations.

Aside from the initial act of conjuring thousands of words, Sudre also needed to create bilingual dictionaries in every major language in order for Solresol to gain usage. He planned to single-handedly write Solresol dictionaries in 12 languages: French, English, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese.

On 23 July 1833, Sudre invited the press to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts to witness public demonstrations of French-Solresol translation. In his usual fashion, he had students listen to Solresol phrases from his violin, which they translated into French with astonishing speed. The following June, the Paris newspaper La Quotidienne asked Sudre for a private demonstration. The paper’s editor picked up his pen and scratched out a single word onto a slip of paper: “Victoire!” Sudre played a few notes on his violin. His students, in another room, dutifully translated this into perfect French. To the staff’s bewilderment, Sudre then asked them to give him words in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, or Chinese… because he had already completed these dictionaries.

Sudre’s reputation – and that of his new language – grew with each performance. When he arrived in Brussels just three months later, articles lauding the ‘Prophet of Sound’ and his new language preceded his appearances. By the time he returned to Paris, he had become a household name, the subject of articles and satirical spoofs alike. Composers like Hector Berlioz were attending his shows and pleading with the government to hire Sudre before some foreigner did. The optimism among musicians that Sudre and his decades of effort might have raised their vocation to a new height was perhaps best expressed on 5 February 1835, in an article in the music journal Le Pianiste: “When it comes to posterity, that which M Sudre already belongs to, we are assured that he will be most appreciated, and that, if we have elevated a statue of Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, we will find it just later to erect one to the inventor of the musical language.”

Just weeks after Sudre was championed in print as the next Gutenberg, he demonstrated another innovation… communication with the deaf and blind. At a performance on the night of 22 February, Sudre dramatically wrapped a handkerchief over his eyes and asked that one of his students be silently given a phrase to translate. His pupil then walked over to the blindfolded teacher and delicately pressed his fingers into Sudre’s palm. Sudre opened his mouth – and to the crowd’s disbelief – out came the precise words that had been written down. What Sudre had done was transpose the seven notes of the scale to positions on his hand. By simply tapping away at the other person’s palm, a blind man could now communicate with a mute. Such an invention, in an era where the handicapped were generally left to rot in institutions, was an extraordinary advance.

But Sudre had more up his cape. Over the following years he developed an extraordinary array of ways of expressing Solresol. You could do it through numbers (1 equals Do, 2 equals Re, etc.), which could also be expressed as a series of knocks or other sharp sounds. You could talk through visual hand signals and through the seven ROYGBIV colors of the spectrum. With each passing year, Sudre worked obsessively on further improvements – telegraphic versions of Solresol, Stenographic symbols, written shorthand, and the like. He did not expect Solresol to ever replace national languages, but he desperately wished to see it become the second language to which every human would be born into.

It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to live in such a vertiginous world of hidden meanings. Awareness of Solresol can be disorienting and a little unnerving in a chaotic world that does not actually follow its strictures; one modern Solresolist, Greg Baker, recalls that after a while he started wondering why “the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth seems to talk about ‘Wednesday’.” Needless to say, obsessive fans who hear already secret messages in music would not do their mental stability any favors by learning Solresol.

And yet the experience may be less cacaphonic than we might imagine. In practice Solresol is a language in the key of C. Imagine sitting down at a piano and only hitting the white keys randomly. No matter how hard you try to foul it up, you’ll still sound pretty good. This is why virtually every nursery rhyme is written in this key. An instrument tuned to C can give performances that aren’t terribly structured or melodic, but they’ll also never sound harsh or dissonant – and the same can be said for Solresol.

Not everyone was enchanted by Sudre. In 1839, he began receiving nagging letters from Aime Paris, a scholar who became his bitterest critic. In 1821, Paris had, himself, tried to create a universal language, and eventually thrown his notes in the fire in frustration. Later, Paris attended Sudre’s lectures and glowered at the unscientific nature of Sudre’s crowd-pleasing proofs: it was, he spat, “a juggling act” put on by a “mountebank.”

Paris published two tracts – in 1846 and then 1847 – firstly conceding that Sudre’s Telephonie system might have some limited usefulness, but then heaping scorn on the “so-called Universal Musical Language.” Paris was enraged that prominent commissions were giving Sudre their approval, when – or so Paris thought – all Sudre had created was a childish set of “detestable” conversions from one alphabet to another. This, he claimed, hardly constituted a language: “Who would believe that after so many celebrated people have given their seal of approval, that we weren’t looking at one of these important discoveries that change the face of the world, and decide the fate of nations? And yet I regret to say that these Institute members have been deceived by Monsieur Sudre... [they] gave him the stamp of a great man simply because he discovered the French language minus its orthography.”

Paris goes on to accuse Sudre of trying to rip off the government through his continued publicity stunts and begging for grants. He ridicules Sudre’s claim of having spent decades developing the language, and even gets up a certain swagger in his attacks against Sudre’s requests for a government pilot program: “Sudre has asked for two years to set up such a system at great expense. I could do it in six weeks for free.”

Paris’s attacks don’t bear much scrutiny. His disdain for Sudre’s publicity methods may be justified, but that hardly detracts from Sudre’s language. The charge that Sudre had falsely claimed years of labour on Solresol was effectively disproved by the eventual publication of a Solresol dictionary and lexicon. Sudre himself was bewildered by Paris’s vehement attacks. “I don’t know why Aimé Paris has ridiculed my invention,” he shrugged. “He thinks he has the last word on it. He hasn’t even had the first word.” It may have been simple envy. Or it may have been the ink-flinging of an opinionated crank – something with which constructed languages are cursed with a plentiful supply.

And yet not all of Paris’s criticisms proved unjustified: “You want to force musical sounds to serve as signs represented already by codes known by anyone who can read... and which you want to replace with less convenient signs which only four in a thousand could interpret,” he sniped. “A stupid idea. All that you’re doing with your written notes, which are not music to non-musicians ... [is creating] a time consuming and unlearnable system.” In this, at least, Paris was absolutely correct. The limited vocabulary and confusing sameness of Solresol words were to haunt its proponents later.

Despite the taunts of Aime Paris, during the 1840s and 1850s Sudre continued to pile up accolades with one tour after another. His wife had joined him as his onstage partner and he continued to work on his dictionaries. There was only one thing keeping Sudre from being a smashing success – a total lack of funding. The explanation is heartbreakingly simple; there’s no money in universal languages. There is no freight to be carried by them, no mills to be run processing them, no wars to be won by them, no diseases to be cured. Solresol is, at heart, the philanthropic effort of an idealist – and the Brotherhood of Mankind does not issue quarterly dividend checks.

By the time Sudre dragged himself to the London Exhibition in 1862 – his suitcase packed with eight completed Solresol dictionaries for display – he was already an old and increasingly frail man. A jury at this exposition was moved to award him a Medal of Honor, and each word of their citation might as well have been a blow of the chisel into his tombstone: “The remarkable project of Mr. Sudre... will it ever receive a useful application? And its author, already quite old, will he receive no other recompense other than the unanimous admiration of an unprofitable jury?” Months later, he was dead.

A monument was duly erected to Sudre in his home village. But as for the eight dictionaries that Sudre showed to such great acclaim at the London Exposition just before his death... no one has seen them ever since. The tangible results of his lifetime of work, it seems, is utterly lost to history.

Except that one dictionary did survive. His widow, Josephine Sudre, took up the Solresol cause after his death and, in 1866, published a French language Solresol grammar and dictionary titled Langue Universelle Musicale. A Societé Pour la Propagation de la Langue Universelle Solresol was founded in Paris and the use of Solresol grew steadily in the decades after Sudre’s death, with thousands of speakers in France becoming familiar with its use. Its high point came in 1902, when Society head Boleslas Gajewski published a brief Grammaire du Solresol. Although Gajewski starts his guide with platitudes about how useful Solresol would be for international travelers, he makes a point of emphasizing that “the blind will be able to exchange ideas with foreign deaf-mutes and vice-versa, so everyone will be able to answer them and be understood by them.” Gajewski probably knew that the game was nearly up for convincing a worldwide audience to adopt Solresol; those with disabilities represented a more attainable captive audience.

But new artificial languages like Volapuk and Esperanto were on the horizon, and their recognizably European basis helped them become embraced in a way that Solresol never was. Gajewski’s book, meant to spark a new Solresol movement, proved to be a last gasp. Scarcely another word was written on Solresol for the next century, and soon the very existence of the language was forgotten.

Yet Solresol is not entirely dead. There are about a dozen enthusiasts scattered across the world: most notably two Australian cryptographers – Greg Baker and Jason Hutchens – who discovered the language independently of each other; the Alaskan researcher Stephen Rice; California musicologist David Whitwell; and Oregon physician John Schilke. Each has worked to preserve the history of this bizarrely charming language, often while completely unaware that any other Solresolists were even out there.

The revival looks like it may even be gaining momentum. Greg Baker has registered the domain name of solresol.org.au as a future base of operations, and Jason Hutchens has floated the idea of computer programs which will convert Solresol writings into files that could be exchanged between musician-speakers worldwide. Rice has begun to make some refinements in the language which, when completed, will be the first step forward in Solresol’s development since Gajewski’s 1904 text.

One enigmatic trace did turn up before the current revival: years ago, someone in the computer industry quietly inserted the seven letters of the Solresol alphabet in the Unicode 16-character set. “Here was a language that had very little written record,” Greg Baker muses, “now being regarded by the computer industry as an important international language, on par with Thai, Tamil or English.” Solresol domifare...

Fortean Times would like to extend a very big thanks to Mr. Raucoules at the Service des Cimetieres d’Albi. Thanks as well to Mme. Cayre at the Albi Archives and Mme Munier at the Abaye de Soreze.


Article Info

April 2001

FT 145

Main Image:
Nick Dewar


Banvard's Folly (Picador, 2001); Paul Collins

La Télèphonie and the Universal Language; David Whitwell


Stephen Rice's Solresol site

Jason Hutchen's Solresol site

Auxiliary language archives



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