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A Brief Description of Tsolyani

Tsolyani is the creation of Prof. M.A.R. Barker of the University of Minnesota, one of the (many!) languages he created for his world of Tekumel. He created all these in the 1970s, and in the late 70's and early 80's, the world and its elements were used in a gaming system, The Empire of the Petal Throne, by TSR. I believe that various groups are continuing the gaming aspects to the present day, but I don't know if anyone is still active in the language. If not, it would be a shame, because Tsolyani is amazingly detailed and exotic, and has an extensive vocabulary and a lovely orthography.

The Websites listed at the end of the page tend to focus on gaming rules and the details of the world of Tekumel, so check them for information on these topics. Here, I want to present a brief overview of the language of Tsolyani.

The original source for information on Tsolyani is The Tsolyani Language (Adventure Games, 1978, 2 vol.), which I believe is rare and out of print. If you ever see a copy of it, snatch it up! There is also a Tsolyani Primer written by Curtis Scott with Prof. Barker's blessing. This you can find on-line in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format at the Blue Room archives (as primer.pdf). If you download it and take the course, be sure to send in the modest registration fee.

This overview will not go into great detail about Tsolyani, nor will it present a complete list of grammatical or lexical terms. It is intended to satisfy curiosity about the language behind the words you see on the Tsolyani-Word-For-The-Day page, and hopefully to spur you to learn more on your own.

Pronounciation and Alphabet

The sound inventory of Tsolyani is as follows (Prof. Barker gives detailed directions on pronounciation; here I just give close approximations for English speakers):

ps i (like machine
tz e (like met)
chsh a (like father)
kzh ü (like i)
q (like calm)ss (retroflex s) o (like go)
' (like ah-ah)h u (like flute)
bhl (like Llewellyn)
dl au
jr oi
gkh (like Bach) ai
tsgh (a voiced kh)
tl (like tlhIngan)m
vng (like singer)
th (like thin)w
dh (like then)y

Native Tsolyani is written in its own script, which is beautifully loopy and flowing. You can download a Tsolyani TrueType font from this Website. This font was originally designed by Prof. Barker, and amended slightly by me. The included text file will give you the proper keyboard mappings for the letters. Just be aware that the digraphs above (eg. th) are represented in the native script by single characters, and that each character can have up to 4 different forms, depending on where it is used in a word.

It is not difficult to write in Tsolyani, because all words are spelled exactly as they sound. However, Tsolyani is written right-to-left, so unless you have some sort of keyboard program or macro installed, you will have to write your texts "backwards". Also, vowels are actually diacritics that appear over the consonants they follow. If you are entering your text "backwards", you will enter the vowels after the consonants. For example, to enter the word masun in this "backward" style, you would enter n-s-u-m-a (ignoring for the moment the special initial and final character keyboard mappings).

Word Formation

Tsolyani words are built from roots, which appear with various modifications as nouns, verbs or adjectives. While some roots have a strongly noun, verb or adjective sense, others can be used in several parts of speech.

There are many ways in which roots become nouns, mostly based on the addition of suffixes. For example: from dimlal- hit, dimlalikh the hitting; from vayun- open, vayunlukh key, from purdi- fruit, purdi-kh the fruit, and purdigashenikh fruit-stand.

Although many adjectival concepts are represented in Tsolyani by prefixes and suffixes (see below), independent adjectives can be formed from roots by addition of in, an or n: dali-n large, abasun white.

Note: The suffixes -kh and -n insert vowel i when added to roots ending in a consonant. For this reason, if the root already ends in the vowel i, in the dictionary entry, a dash is placed between it and the following suffix (as in purdi-kh and dali-n) to distinguish it from a root plus -ikh/-in. This becomes important when certain suffixes are dropped in use (thus, hipurdi of the fruit, not *hipurd).

Some adverbs are pure, that is derived directly from roots, such as buri very, ya no, not, eru now. Others are derived from nouns or roots by addition of suffixes (with -n: tatlan also, burujabi-n many times; with -mon manner, way: omon in that way) or prefixes (nesani truly, from sani-kh truth).

The simple verb is derived from roots with no change in form: the verbal root and simple verb are identical.

A glance through the lexicon shows many familiar terms. Although the setting of the language in the world of Tekumel, with unique flora, fauna and sentient races, does introduce unique terms into the lexicon, the basic logic of the words, that is, the way the language maps its semantic space onto reality, is comfortable to the speaker of English.



Nouns in Tsolyani seem to do most of the work, and can be freighted with all manner of prefixes and suffixes, so that you would think it hard to isolate the noun at the core of the word. In practice, it is easier than it sounds.

Nouns are divided into three "genders": noble, ignoble and non-classifiable. Noble nouns end with the suffix -koi, such as basrimkoi man. Ignoble nouns end with the suffix -(i)kh. Non-classifiable nouns have unpredictable endings. The plural of all genders is -yal. Classification of nouns into one of the three genders is an interesting window into the psyche of the Tsolyanu. Men are noble, women (humedhikh) are ignoble, for example.

The singular gender suffixes actually appear only in the nominative noun. Whenever a locative prefix is added to a noun (putting it in an oblique mode), the singular suffix drops off. For example: basrimkoi the man, hibasrim of the man, savalikh the city, brusaval in the city. This makes the gender suffixes almost into markers of the nominative mode, except that all genders retain the plural -yal even in the oblique, and the gender suffixes are also dropped with the Personal Attitude prefixes, as well.

The locative prefixes are those which express relationships between nouns which are expressed in English and many other languages by prepositions or by grammatical cases. Most of these are familiar relationships (such as hi- of and bru- in, above), but it includes the prefix tla-, which is the marker of the direct object (not a prepositional or case relationship in English, at least).

In addition to the locative prefixes, there are other prefixes that can appear on the noun. These appear in a definite order, and the locatives are actually third in the list:

Note that the gender suffix drops off of singular nouns when either the locative or personal attitude prefixes are present.

Of course, a noun is not required to have any of these prefixes, but if they are present, they must be in the given order. In addition, there may be more than one personal attitude prefix on a noun.

The noun also can take suffixes. These also appear in a given order, and a noun may have more than one representative of each type in a word (in fact, formal Tsolyani gets its florid nature precisely from the piling on of honorifics and other suffixes).

The Personal Attitude prefixes indicate the speaker's own opinion about the noun under discussion, while the General Attitude suffixes give a more objective evaluation. Some of these suffixes seem like simple adjectives of size or quality.

Thus, a given noun may have eight different types of morphological elements in the noun phrase, and may have more than eight morphemes, if any are repeated. A phrase like mssuranqurubrutoqusavaldalidaliyal in all these very large awe-inspiring cities is not uncommon, at least in formal texts.


The Tsolyani verb is not conjugated for number or person. Various affixes and periphrastic compounds are used for the various verb forms. The dictionary entry of the verb is also the simple present indicative form: lum pal I come ( lum I, pal to come); maisur mule He goes (maisur he, mule to go). Various prefixes and suffixes can be attached to the simple verb. Unlike the noun, it is unusual for a verb to have more than one, or a most a few, of these affixes at a time. For this reason, perhaps, it seems that they are not arranged in a strict placement order like the noun affixes.

There are six verbal prefixes. Some have many members of the class, some have only one or a few.

There are only two types of verbal suffixes, the imperative suffix -li (negated by tha) [ex. muleli go!] and the temporal absolutive suffixes. These latter are used to form subordinate phrases with different temporal relationships to the main verb. Examples: -dai while X-ing, -ngü having X-ed: paldai while coming.

Verbs can be used in compound with particles, phrases and other verbs. Some of these come before the verb, and others after. The future tense is indicated by the phrase mal ul gual before the verb, the hortative (Let(s)...) by mal ul; ex. lum mal ul gual pal I will come; lum mal ul pal let me go! Other tense relationships are indicated by particles placed after the verb, eg. daimi habitual past, mura past perfect: pal daimi used to come.

Various aspects of the verb can be indicated by particles placed after the verb. Examples: barü habitually, dopal is X-ing, tane finished X-ing: lum mule barü I go all the time.

Finally, auxiliary verbs can be used with the main verb, which comes after the auxiliary: munchetl pal to stop coming, lum panjang pal I want to come.


These are quite simple to use, in that they don't change their number and are not inflected for case. When used attributively, they precede their noun: dalin basrimkoi large man. When used predicatively, they follow the noun, with no modification: basrimkoi dalin gual The man is large. In fact, the only changes they undergo are the addition of the comparative infix -gal- or superlative -galu-.


Only the first and second persons have actual pronouns: lum I, lumi/lumama we; tusmi you, tlumiyel you (pl). The terms for third person (noble and ignoble), maisur/masun he, she, it and mssuri/mssuran they are actually demonstrative adjectives. They can take any of the locative prefixes, like any noun, except that the possessive suffix -mra is regularly employed instead of the locative hi-: lummra my.


Tsolyanu society is patriarchial and rigidly hierarchical (why don't more women study it, do you think?), and this is reflected in the language: in the division between noble and ignoble genders, and in the pronouns. The pronouns for I, we and you given above are simply those used by and to persons of the middle class of society; there are actually six forms of I, depending on the speaker's class, and up to thirty-three different ways to say you, depending on the class of the one spoken to. There are also special forms of the verbal imperative, for those of higher or lower status than the speaker.


The basic word order of the Tsolyani sentence is subject-verb-pronominal object. Impersonal sentences without subjects are permitted (banur it's raining), as are intransitive verbs without objects (lum pal I come). Adjectives generally precede the noun to which they refer (dalin basrimkoi pal The large man comes). Adverbs and locative phrases generally come after the subject and before the verb (lum molmüni nechqol pal I come early to the palace), although temporal adverbs may precede the subject (hagin lum nechqol pal I come early today).

Copula sentences (also called equational sentences) are formed with the verb gual to be. Both subject and predicate usually precede the verb (lum korunkanerkoi gual I am a librarian).

When a transitive verb has a pronominal object, it simply follows the verb: lum dimlal masun I hit it. When the object of the verb is a noun, it must take the "locative" prefix tla-, however, the pronominal object does not drop out: lum dimlal maisur, tlabasrim I hit the man (lit. I hit him, the man). When the pronominal object is used alone and refers to a person, it usually takes tla- also: lum dimlal tlamaisur I hit him.

Relative phrases are often simply inserted into the sentence, set off by commas. A more formal usage is to prepend the particle de to the relative. In either case, the relative phrase has no special form setting it off as a relative or tying it to its antecedent in the body of the sentence: basrimkoi, (de) lum dimlal muni tlamaisur, dahlte gual The man who I hit is here.

Various particles may introduce the sentence, such as nagran behold! Sentence ending particles include ne, which signifies a yes-no question. In addition, there are conjunctions like lel and, chamas therefore, and va...hasru if...then, as well as all manner of interjections and exclamations.


To learn more about the Tsolyanu and the world of Tekumel, you can consult the following Websites:

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© 1999 - 2000, Terrence Donnelly

Tekumel and Tsolyani are property of Professor M. A. R. Barker. This page is presented for educational purposes only. No infringement intended.

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