Ilì Sounds Like Chinese, but It’s Actually English (Sort of)

Ilì is a fake language (conlang) that was designed by applying sound changes to English in order to give it lexical and grammatical tones, reminiscent of Chinese.


Languages are constantly changing. English from a thousand years ago would be incomprehensible to any given English speaker today — so what’s to say such a dramatic shift wouldn’t happen within the next millennium?

I made Ilì for fun, and wanted to share it with yall. I did a little bit of research on how tones developed in various languages, and decided to see what would happen if I applied it to English.

The result: Ilì, a language that sounds like Chinese, but is still English! It’s a tonal language, although it’s tones are a lot more primitive, with contours being rare and most tones being constant.

Ilì is literally just the word “English” with a few sound changes applied to it. First, I re-spelled it to Ienglish to be phonetically accurate. /ɪ/ merged into /i/, so it becomes Inglish. Next, “sh” is dropped, giving the vowel before it a low tone; we now have Inglì. Lastly, “ng” is absorbed into “l”, giving us Ilì!

This isn’t my prediction for how English will develop, just a fun experiment. Also, all I’ve translated was a single sentence, so it ain’t really a language, more of a demo or preview — and the extent to which it can be called “English” is debatable.

Warning: there’s a lot of technical terms and linguistic phenomenon I won’t be explaining. Feel free to leave a comment asking for an explanation, though.

Ilì Vowels

IPAUpper-CaseLower-Case
iIi
uUu
ɛEe
oOo
ɑAa
əƎə

There are six vowels: /i/, /u/, /ɛ/, /o/, /ɑ/, and /ə/. /ɪ/, /ʊ/, and /æ/ have merged into /i/, /u/, and /ɛ/, respectively.

Ilì Tones

ToneTranscription
Mida
Highá
Lowà
Risingâ
Fallingǎ
Dippinga᷉
Peakinga᷈

There are seven tones: mid, high, low, rising, falling, dipping, and peaking. The first three are short and the rest are long.

I know â and ǎ are supposed to be the other way around, but it makes more sense to me if the rising tone has a diacritic pointing upwards.

Tones are used both lexically and grammatically. Wè and wé are differentiated exclusively by tone, but have completely different meanings: west and wet, respectively.

Furthermore, the “-s” suffix, denoting ownership, plurality, or both, is dropped when preceded by a vowel, which it parasitizes with a low tone. For example: í is the pronoun “he,” and ǐ is “his.”

Ilì Consonants

In order to create the tones, all fricatives were voiced, while all plosives and affricates were devoiced. /r/ was merged into /l/. Since voice is no longer a concern, I’ve decided to replace “ch” with “j” out of sheer laziness.

Ilì Grammar

The indefinite article “a” and definite article “the” devolved into ə and ə̀, respectively; the latter eventually lost it’s tone, resulting in a useless article that was eventually scrapped. Plenty of languages don’t have articles, like Chinese and Russian, so that’s okay!

Prepositions have become prefixes, attaching themselves to the front of whatever word comes next — be it the noun they’re supposed to help or its first adjective. This is reminiscent of Romanian’s articles.

If the word starts with a vowel: it’ll be parasitized, often to the point where tone becomes the only distinction. This is similar to the “-s” suffix I discussed earlier.

Example Translation

Let’s translate this sentence, taken from Wikipedia, into Ilì:

English is a West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by the inhabitants of early medieval England.

Ilì i Wè Jə̀mení leikwə́ Ìntò-Yəpǐn leikwə́ vémli, lijî pókín páinepînz ə̀li mîvò Ilen.

IPA: /ilì i wè t͡ʃə̀mɛní lei̯kʷə́ ìntò jəpîn lei̯kʷə́ vɛ́mli lit͡ʃǐ pókín páí̯nɛpǐnz ə̀li mǐvò ilɛn/

An approximation of what it might sound like (I suck at this)

This bears little similarity to the original, but you can see some clues if you listen closely. “Vémli,” for example, still sounds a lot like “family” — especially if you come from a part of the country where the first “i” is usually dropped, like I do.

See if you can figure out which words are which, and how they evolved!

Conclusion

Ilì shows not only how tones can develop, but also that languages can radically change over time. It might be an excuse for me to waste three or so hours not doing anything productive, but it is pretty cool.

Recommended article: Abolish the Sales Tax.

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