The History of the Sheli Language

Mira: A whole page devoted to the history of a language. Take that, modern linguistics!

First, I want to say one thing: I don't know anything about the historical development of tone in natural languages. I've heard rumors (the loss of voiced stops vs. the loss of voiceless stops, etc.), but I have no facts. Therefore, this history may be...what's the word...improbable? Possibly even ridiculous (specifically, susceptible to ridicule). Nevertheless, this is the history of the language. The imagined history, of course—one step removed from the created histories of languages with concultures. This is the history of the language if the language had a conculture—which it doesn't. So think of this as a disclaimer. A warning, if you will.

Proceed with caution.

In the Beginning...

...there was the earth, the sea, and the sky.
Then, later on, there were candy wrappers and digital photographs.
In between, there was nothing.
Until one day...

Sheli began its existence as a poor language. Then I revived it. Then I gave it a history. That history begins with a language that has toneless words that look like the following:


By turns, this language became a language with words that look like this:


Needless to say, much has happened to the extra C's and V's in the interim. Below, I will do my best to summarize exactly what happened (more or less).

What Happened

The collapsing of certain medial consonants, the intolerance of hiatus, and the "Great Shaving Off" all worked to pair down Sheli's words and give them lexical tone. I'll describe each of these things in the order that I listed them.


What started the whole business was the elision of certain consonants in between vowels. These consonants were the velar aspirates [x], [ɣ] and [kʰ]. Each of these sounds disappeared intervocalically. Well, technically only velar fricatives disappeared intervocalically. But there was a sound change that occurred even before the sound change we're talking about now, and that's the spirantization of aspirated stops intervocalically. This brings us to our first sound change of the page!

Sound Change Number 1: Cʰ > [+cont] / V_V

Examples of SCN1:

  1. */tepʰa/ > [tefa]!
  2. */patʰas/ > [pasas]!
  3. */zakʰan/ > [zaxan]!

Yeah! All right, that's SCN1. And now for SCN2!

Sound Change Number 2: C[+cont, +vel] > Ø / V_V

Examples of SCN2:

  1. */zaxan/ > [zaan]!
  2. */eɣon/ > [eon]!

Yessir! The fun never stops here. Now onto our next big topic!

Hiatus Busting

Unless you're Hawai'ian, hiatus is usually considered a bad thing. What is "hiatus", you might ask? Well, I creo that it's when two vowels come next to each other without an intervening consonant (if you're like me, the word "hiatus" sounds like the exact opposite of that situation, but wha'cha gonna do?). Many language like to clean this up, and Sheli was no different. Three different things happened, which means (¿listos?) three new sound changes!

Sound Change Number 3: V₁V₁ > V₁ː

Examples of SCN3:

  1. */zaan/ > [zaːn]!
  2. */koos/ > [koːs]!
  3. */lees/ > [leːs]!

The above resolved vowels of the same quality coming next to each other. But what about vowels of varying qualities? Two different things happened depending on whether the vowels were of the same height or different heights.

Sound Change Number 4: V₁[αhigh, βlabial],V₂[-αhigh] > C[+approx., -lateral, βlabial],V₂

Examples of SCN4:

  1. */kue/ > [kwe]!
  2. */foa/ > [fwa]!
  3. */ai/ > [aj]!
  4. */dea/ > [dja]!
  5. */ias/ > [jas]!
  6. */cʰoi/ > [cʰoj]!
  7. */nae/ > [naj]!
  8. */cʰau/ > [cʰaw]!
  9. */tou/ > [tow]!

And, it's worth mentioning in passing that sequences of CC[+approx.] became either labialized or palatalized consonants. Now for the next sound change!

Sound Change Number 5: V₁[αhigh, βround, βback] V₂[αhigh, -βround, -βback] > V₃[αhigh, -βround, βback]

Examples of SCN5:

  1. */ciu/ > [cy]!
  2. */muin/ > [mɯn]!
  3. */leon/ > [løn]!
  4. */oes/ > [ɤs]!

So that's the sad fate of hiatus in Sheli. Now listen ye to a Gaulish tale of monosyllabicity!

Word Shaving

I hereby announce to that web community that I know of and can provide evidence for at least three instances of word shaving in professional conlanging! Those who disgraced the noble art will, I assure you, be brought to justice.

En français, nous avons de plural endings like /-s/ and /-es/, but no matter how hard you try, you just can't pronounce that [s]! So, if you have une carte, you pronounce it [kɑχt], mais si tu as de deux cartes, you still pronounce it [kɑχt]! Ne pas de *[kɑχts], ou de *[kɑχtəs], ou quelquechose: seulement [kɑχt]. Increible! The reason is because all final consonants (well, for the most part) were lost at one point in l'histoire de la langue française. A similar thing happened in Sheli. But, unlike in French, it didn't happen everywhere. Specifically, final consonants were saved in monosyllabic words, and only in monosyllabic words. This brings us to another sound change!

Sound Change Number 6: C > Ø / ...CV_#

Examples of SCN6:

  1. */dolus/ > [dolu]!
  2. */ʝefan/ > [ʝefa]!
  3. */somban/ > [somba]!
  4. */nembas/ > [nemba]!

The only sounds this sound change affected were [s] and [n], since those were the only two consonants that could end a word. This change may be more like what happened to Latin with final [s] and [m]. It may be like the final consonant loss found in Austronesian. It may even be totally unsupportable. At this stage, I can't say for certain. For the time being, though, this sound change shall remain.

The next victims of the monosyllabicity movement were final vowels. Word on the street is that final vowels of words with more than one syllable reduced to something like schwa, and this led to their destruction. Thus, another sound change!

Sound Change Number 7: V > Ø / ...C_#

Examples of SCN7:

  1. */dolu/ > [dol]!
  2. */ʝefa/ > [ʝef]!
  3. */somba/ > [somb]!
  4. */nemba/ > [nemb]!
  5. */pampi/ > [pamp]!
  6. */suntu/ > [sunt]!
  7. */šiŋku/ > [šiŋk]!
  8. */ʝaɲci/ > [ʝaɲc]!

This left Sheli a completely monosyllabic language. By this time the tone system as we know it had developed (more on the specifics of that later). But the wheels in the sky hadn't stopped turning—oh no. In this version of Sheli, all words were monosyllabic, but some words ended in a vowel; some a single consonant; and some two consonants (and these two consonants were always a series of nasal plus stop). This gave rise to yet another sound change!

Sound Change Number 8: V > [-ATR] / _CC

Examples of SCN8:

  1. */sunt/ > [sʊnt]!
  2. */šiŋk/ > [šɪŋk]!
  3. */somb/ > [sɔmb]!
  4. */nemb/ > [nɛmb]!

The above-illustrated sound change fixed it so that vowels followed by a complex coda relaxed, as it were. [-ATR] is not, perhaps, the correct term, since the difference between [a] and [ə] is not captured by the feature [ATR], but it's a good shorthand. In essence, all vowels in the above-mentioned position were reduced.

This leaves us with one last, lone, lingering sound change (or "lound lange", if you prefer). I'm afraid that a particular class of sounds is going to...vanish. Who will it be?! Will it be word-final voiced stops? Will it be lax vowels? Will it be onset fricatives? No, I'm afraid not. The remaining culprit—the final brick in the wall—is none other than...

...the final member of all complex codas!

Sound Change Number 9: C > Ø / C_

Examples of SCN9:

  1. */sʊnt/ > [sʊn]!
  2. */šɪŋk/ > [šɪŋ]!
  3. */sɔmb/ > [sɔm]!
  4. */nɛmb/ > [nɛm]!
  5. */bəŋk/ > [bəŋ]!
  6. */ʝəɲc/ > [ʝəɲ]!

And voila!

Well, actually there's one more sound changes that fits in here somewhere, but I'm not quite sure where it fits in. Therefore, I will tell of it now, and pretend that it's sound change number 10. Essentially, what this sound change illustrates is that there's a difference in vowel length between words that were originally, say, */biu/ and words that were originally */bixu/. Both result in [b] followed by the vowel [y], but the second of the pair has a vowel that's actually longer. Thus, the result is [byː]. An important note is that this only applies to words that were originally CVCV. [There's a reason, and it has to do with moras and content words.] And, even though this really isn't much of a sound change, I'm going to pretend like it is to give us a nice, even number of sound changes. Here we go!

Sound Change Number 10: C > V₁[αhigh, βround, βback] C[+velar, +cont.] V₂[αhigh, -βround, -βback] > Vː₃[αhigh, -βround, βback]

Examples of SCN10:

  1. */bixu/ > [byː]!
  2. */duɣi/ > [dɯː]!
  3. */mekʰo/ > [møː]!
  4. */xoɣe/ > [xɤː]!

And that is how the Sheli language of today came into being (aside from a few minor details like certain types of vowel length and tones). Proceed to learn how the tonal system came to be.

The Evolution of Tone in Sheli

You know, I always swore I'd never create a tone language. I was willing to compromise by trying my hand at a pitch-accent language, but a tone language was completely out of the question. Why? Because I didn't understand them. In fact, I still don't. I understand how they're useful communicative devices, and, if pressed, I could probably learn one, but how they work is a different story. Nevertheless, I've discovered something. In the absence of someone standing over your head with a ruler in one hand and an American flag in the other saying things like, "That's not how tone evolves! You're a disgrace! Have you taken the OCP into consideration? Have you?! How are you ranking your constraints? No constraints?! I cast thee out!", I've found that creating a tone language ain't all that bad.

The language Sheli was born again from my desire to create a tone language. It never would have gotten off the ground had I not been able to come up with a method to derive lexical tone over time that satisfied me (not necessarily a historical linguist). With a little luck, and a kluge here and there, I was able to do it. Below is the result.

In truth, this probably could've been explained along with the sound changes above (possibly even should've...?). I chose not to because I think it would've been too confusing. We'll see if I still think so when I get through essentially reexplaining every single sound change—but now with stress added!


Below I'm going to summarize the sound changes above with tonal/stress information added. The idea is to jog your memory with respect to the sound changes and then add some extra info that should paint a quaint picture of how tone evolved.

Before going through each sound change again, I want to give you a fact about the earliest form of the language. This fact held true for all words at all times. That fact is this: Words that ended in a vowel were stressed on the penultimate syllable; words that ended in a consonants were stressed on the ultimate syllable. Keep that in mind for this edition of Rewind!

  1. Sound Change Number 1: Cʰ > [+cont] / V_V
    • Description: Aspirated stops spirantize intervocalically.

    • Example: */'te.pʰa/ > ['te.fa]

    • Effect on Tone: None.

  2. Sound Change Number 2: C[+cont, +vel] > Ø / V_V
    • Description: Velar fricatives disappear intervocalically.

    • Example 1: */za.'xan/ > [za.'an]

    • Example 2: */'za.ɣa/ > ['za.a] (Note: > */'bi.xu/ > [ˆbyː].)

    • Effect on Tone: None (yet).

  3. Sound Change Number 3: V₁V₁ > V₁ː
    • Description: Like adjacent vowels produce long vowels.

    • Example 1: */za.'an/ > [ˇzaːn]

    • Example 2: */'za.ɣa/ > */'za.a/ > [ˆzaː]

    • Example 3: */'za.a/ > [ˇzaː]

    • Effect on Tone: Rising tone produced in all words with CV₁V₁C proto-forms; falling tone produced in all words with CV₁V₁ proto-forms that came from CV₁(x/ɣ)V₁ proto-forms. A rising tone is also produced in forms whose oldest form was CVV. This is the official beginning of tone in Sheli. At this stage, all stressed syllables became associated with high tone, initial stressed syllables getting a super high tone, and final stressed syllables getting a plain high tone. This sound change occurred in conjunction with sound changes 4, 5 and 6. [Note: Tone markers will appear before the sylllable with the tone in question, just like the marker for stress—for now, at least.]

  4. Sound Change Number 4: V₁[αhigh, βlabial],V₂[-αhigh] > C[+approx., -lateral, βlabial],V₂
    • Description: All [-low] vowels (i.e., [e], [i], [o] and [u]) become glides when occurring next to a vowel of different height. Front vowels become [j] and back vowels become [w].

    • Example: */'ku.e/ > [ˇkwe] (Note: > [ˇkʷe].)

    • Effect on Tone: Rising tone produced in all words with similar proto-forms. The reason is that the high tone of the stressed vowel couldn't be deleted, so it lingered. The loss of a mora resulted in the introduction of a contour, rather than producing a simple CV form with a high tone.

  5. Sound Change Number 5: V₁[αhigh, βround, βback] V₂[αhigh, -βround, -βback] > V₃[αhigh, -βround, βback]
    • Description: Vowels of the same height but differing quality resulted in the production of opposite rounding vowels. The height of the produced vowel is common to both; the rounding comes from the second member of the pair; the [back] feature comes from the first member of the pair.

    • Example: */'ci.u/ > [ˇcy]

    • Effect on Tone: Rising tone produced in all words with similar proto-forms (i.e., forms whose oldest proto-form was CVV). [Note: Tone markers will appear before the sylllable with the tone in question, just like the marker for stress—for now, at least.]

  6. Sound Change Number 6: C > Ø / ...CV_#
    • Description: Final consonants of multisyllabic words disappear.

    • Example 1: */do.'lus/ > [do.´lu]

    • Example 2: */som.'ban/ > [som.´ba]

    • Effect on Tone: As stated in sound change 3, this is where tone is introduced to polysyllabic words.

  7. Sound Change Number 7: V > Ø / ...C_#
    • Description: Final vowels of multisyllabic words disappear.

    • Example 1: */do.´lu/ > [dol]

    • Example 2: */som.´ba/ > [somb]

    • Example 3: */˝ > [˝zuk]

    • Example 4: */˝pam.pi/ > [˝pamp]

    • Effect on Tone: In words where the final syllable was stressed, the remaining syllable gained a mid tone (unmarked). In words where the initial syllable was stressed, the remaining syllable gained a super high tone.

  8. Sound Change Number 8: V > [-ATR] / _CC
    • Description: Lax vowels are produced in syllables that end in a complex coda.

    • Example 1: */somb/ > [sɔmb]

    • Example 2: */˝pamp/ > [˝pəmp]

    • Example 3: */'baŋk/ > [´bəŋk]

    • Effect on Tone: Not yet having a tone, words whose oldest proto-form is CVCC gain a high tone.

  9. Sound Change Number 9: C > Ø / C_
    • Description: Consonant clusters are simplified when the second member of every consonant cluster is deleted.

    • Example 1: */sɔmb/ > [sɔm]

    • Example 2: */˝pəmp/ > [˝pəm]

    • Example 3: */´bəŋk/ > [´bəŋ]

    • Effect on Tone: None.

  10. Sound Change Number 10: V₁[αhigh, βround, βback] C[+velar, +cont.] V₂[αhigh, -βround, -βback] > Vː₃[αhigh, -βround, βback]
    • Description: Opposite rounding vowels resulting from a deleted medial velar fricative are lengthened.

    • Example: */bixu/ > [ˆbyː]

    • Effect on Tone: Like other CVV forms, the result is a falling tone.

Summary Judgment

That just about says everything that needs to be said about the history of tone in Sheli. However, there are a few things missing. After all, not all words underwent some kind of transformation. Specifically, there are two forms that didn't: (C)V words and (C)VC words.

Without bringing in any new sound changes, I'll simply describe what happened to these types of words. All (C)V words gained a low tone, marked thus [`]. There aren't many words like this, and none of them are "content" words, shall we say (and, for our purposes, pronouns don't count as content words).

(C)VC words got one of two tones, depending on their semantics. Content words (i.e., nouns, verbs, "adjectives", etc.) gained a high tone [´]. Non-content words, though (and these include things like prepositions, pronouns, particles, classifiers, etc.), gained a mid tone (unmarked). And, of course, their phonemic structure didn't change.

That, then, finally, is a historical account (not an historical account—the word begins with a consonant. You're only allowed to say an historical account if you don't pronounce the h, giving you "an 'istorical account", e.g. in certain dialects of British English) of the evolution of tone in Sheli. Below you'll find a table summarizing all the information above. The table below shows: (a) The oldest proto-form; (b) the current form; (c) the tone; and (d) any extra necessary information. Voici:

Historical Tone Type Chart

  1. (C)VCV > (C)VC with a super high tone.
  2. (C)VC > (C)VC with a high tone (for content words).
  3. (C)VC > (C)VC with a mid tone (for non-content words).
  4. (C)V > (C)V with a low tone.
  5. (C)VC₁VC₂ > (C)VC₁ with a mid tone.
  6. (C)VV > (C)Vː, (C)V(w/j) with a rising tone.
  7. (C)VCV > (C)Vː, (C)V(w/j) with a falling tone.
  8. (C)VC₁VC₂ > (C)VːC₂, (C)V(w/j)C₂ with a rising tone.
  9. (C)VCC > (C)VC with a high tone (additionally, the vowel is lax).
  10. (C)VC₁C₂V > (C)VC₁ with a super high tone (additionally, the vowel is lax).
  11. (C)VC₁C₂VC₃ > (C)VC₁ with a mid tone (additionally, the vowel is lax).

From now on, if I refer to a word as being a "Type E word", or a "Type C word", this is the chart to which I'm referring.


This is probably the largest amount of historical work I've ever done for a created language. Since it's all about tone, it's quite possibly more incorrect than correct. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and it all makes sense to me (well, except for one bit that seems iffy to me...). If you actually read through this whole page, I congratulate you: You've done more than most linguists would ever even dream of doing nowadays. Sure, they say, "All that matters is the synchronic present" now, but once they realize that they were going about their business totally wrong, then, I promise you, yours shall be the earth.

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