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Summary Details

Query:   Talking Drums & Whistled Speech
Author:  Aniruddh Patel
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Language Documentation
Anthropological Linguistics

Summary:   Dear Linguist List,

Here is a summary of the responses I received re: talking drums &
whistled speech.

Many thanks to all who replied.

Ani Patel


Dear Linguist List,

Are there any empirical studies comparing spoken intonation to the
acoustic patterns of speech surrogates such as talking drums and
whistled speech?

Ani Patel


REPLY #1, from Kevin Johnson (


Record 1 of 4

TI: Title
The Talking Drum: Moving toward a Psychology of Literacy
AU: Author
Gaines, Joseph H
AF: Author Affiliation
Boricua Coll, New York NY 10032
SO: Source
The Journal of Black Psychology, 1996, 22, 2, May, 202-222
AB: Abstract
Starting from the role of the talking drum as a viable cultural
voice for many west & central African cultures in the acquisition
of literacy, research questions regarding the function & use of
music & language, cognition & the psycholinguistic features of the
drum languages, the psychological dimension of music production, &
its link to acoustic phonetic symbols of the drum languages are
addressed. The musical character of tonal languages spoken in
Africa & the use of the talking drum for literacy purposes are
discussed. The important role of the talking drum in the
maintenance of archaic forms of tonal languages through mnemonic
code systems & the speech mode of drumming are explored. 86
References. Adapted from the source document

Record 2 of 4

TI: Title
Drummed Transactions: Calling the Church in Cameroon
AU: Author
Neeley, Paul
AF: Author Affiliation
U Ghana, Legon NR Accra
SO: Source
Anthropological Linguistics, 1996, 38, 4, winter, 683-717
AB: Abstract
An Ewondo (rural Cameroon) church leader uses a speech surrogate
(talking drum - a two-tone hollow log) to summon the congregation
to twice-weekly meetings. These drummed summonses are analyzed as
tripartite transactions with social, communicative, & aesthetic
aspects, & as a community-based ''enactment'' & specialized form of
reality construction. 1 Figure, 33 References. Adapted from the
source document

Record 3 of 4

TI: Title
Discourse Peak and Poetic Closure in the Final Stanza of a Talking
Drum Performance
AU: Author
Neeley, Paul
SO: Source
The Journal of West African Languages, 1994, 24, 1, May, 108-114
AB: Abstract
Discourse features of a drummed poem performed by the catechist
Antoine Owono of the Roman Catholic church in Mekomba, Cameroon,
are examined. Each discourse is a variant of one drummed poem,
composed through a mix-&-match process by combining drum phrases
into variable stanzas. The end stanza contains the discourse peak
& is considered well-formed. Focus here is on the part of the poem
that does not change each time it is performed. Features
identified by Barbara Smith in her (1968) study of poetic closure
are found in Owono's closing stanza, including (1) unqualified
assertations that convey a sense of the speaker's security &
authority; (2) consistent tone of authority throughout the poem;
(3) references to finality; (4) a sense of truth; & (5) closural
allusions carrying connotations of finality. It is suggested that
Owono's drummed poems meet the criteria of poetry as put forth by
critics of classical English poetry. 5 References. Adapted from
the source document

Record 4 of 4

TI: Title
African Talking Drums and Oral Noetics
AU: Author
Ong, Walter J
AF: Author Affiliation
Saint Louis U, MO 63103
SO: Source
New Literary History, 1977, 8, 3, spring, 411-429
AB: Abstract
African talking drums or slit-gongs, producing the most advanced
acoustic speech surrogates known, are discussed as they exemplify,
caricature, & thereby cast new light on primary orality. J.
Carrington proposes (La Voix des tambours: comment comprendre le
langage tambourine d'Afrique [The Voice of the Drums: How To
Understand African Drum Language], Kinshasa: Centre Protestant
d'Editions et de Diffusion, 1974) a primary oral culture's
''assertive strains'' most likely to be amplified by talking drums:
(1) stereotyped or rigid expression, (2) theme standardization,
(3) epithetic determination for purposes of class or individual
''disambiguation,'' (4) ceremonial character generation, (5)
structural appropriation of history, (6) praise & vituperation
cultivation, & (7) copiousness. Technical manipulation of the
drums, as exemplified by the Lokele, is illustrated, & the future
of drum use (now appearing bleak) is addressed. G. Willner


Record 1 of 3

TI: Title
Whistled Languages
AU: Author
Kim, Chin-W
AF: Author Affiliation
U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 61801
SO: Source
Studies in the Linguistic Sciences, 1977, 7, 2, fall, 196-199
NT: Notes
Edition date: 1976
AB: Abstract
This intriguing book can be read without a knowledge of
linguistics. Seven chapters are included: (1) ''Introduction &
Historical Sketch, '' (2) ''Ecology,'' (3) ''Physics of the Signal,''
(4) ''The Mechanism of Whistle Production,;' (5) ''Phonology &
Phonetics of Whistled Speech,'' (6) ''Extralinguistic Information
Contents of the Signal,'' & (7) ''Whistling in the Animal Kingdom.''
Chapters 3-5 provide the book's linguistic core, chapter 5 being
the most stimulating. All whistled langs occur in ecological
settings (mountains & hills) which present difficulties to normal
communicative efforts. Whistle mechanics & its ability for
long-range travel are not satisfactorily analyzed. This does not,
however, detract from the enjoyment & intellectual reward that can
be derived. T. Lamb

Record 2 of 3

TI: Title
On the phonetic structure of the whistled language ''Silbo Gomero,''
presented through sonographic investigations
OT: Original Title
Uber die phonetische Struktur der Pfeifsprache ''Silbo Gomero,''
dargestellt an sonagraphischen Untersuchungen
AU: Author
Brusis, T
SO: Source
Zeitschrift fur Larynogologie, Rhinologie, Otologie und ihre
Grenzgebiete, 1973, 52 (4), 292-300
AB: Abstract
Sonographic investigations of the phonetic structure of the
whistled language of the Silbo Gomero in the Canaries are
described. The main formants of the spoken word are imitated by
the main frequency lines of the whistled words, so that the melody
is regarded a characteristic of whistled speech. Significant
differences appear when comparing sonagrams of similar sounding
words, even when these are whistled. This explains the surprising
variety and usefulness of the whistled language in the Silbo
LA: Language

Record 3 of 3

TI: Title
A Case of Whistled Speech from Greece
AU: Author
Charalambakis, Christopher
AF: Author Affiliation
Instit Education U Athens, GR-10680 Greece
SO: Source
1993, Philippaki-Warburton, Irene, Nicolaidis, Katerina, &
Sifianou, Maria [Eds], Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins
Publishing Company, 1994, pp 389-396
AB: Abstract
A previously unreported instance of whistled speech is found in
the village of Antia on the Greek island of Euboea. All
inhabitants physically able to do so practice whistled
conversations, which are neither performed nor understood in any
other community nearby. The primary function of whistled speech
appears to be long-distance communication, not secrecy; however,
whistled speech is heard frequently in Antia at close quarters. An
informant readily whistled Greek words of up to nine syllables &
was accurately understood by a second informant. Research on the
prevalence & functions of whistled speech worldwide is summarized.
15 References. J. Hitchcock
LA: Language


REPLY #2, from Kevin Beesley (
[This is a reprint of an exchange on the Linguist List from 1995]

- -------------------------------------------------------------------------
LINGUIST List: Vol-6-1319. Wed Sep 27 1995. ISSN: 1068-4875. Lines:

Subject: 6.1319, Sum: Whistled speech

Date: Mon, 25 Sep 1995 13:23:08 EST
Subject: sum:whistled speech

Several months ago, I posted a query on ''el silbo'', the whistled
language of La Gomera, in the Canary islands. The response was
quick (unlike this summary, mea culpa) and most useful. Many thanks
to those who responded: P.A. Jensen, I. Livbjerg, J. Cardenes, J.
Foster, S.J. Hannahs, J. Davis, M. Kuha, J. Beaven, R. Dury, K.
Beesley, L. Murphy, R. Hirsch, R. Cosper, R. Mannell, M. Pickering,
C. Sanz.

The basic and most mentioned reference on this question is

BUSNEL, R.G. and CLASSE, A. 1976. _Whistled Languages_, Berlin:
Springer. 117 pp.

It expands on earlier treatments by one of its authors:

CLASSE, A. 1956. ''Phonetics of the Silbo Gomero'' , _Archivum
Linguisticum_ 9: 44-61.

CLASSE, A. 1957. ''The Whistled Language of La Gomera'', _Scientific
American_ 196 (4): 111-119.

The other indispensible text is a collection of articles also
published in 1976, including 25 on whistled speech written in
English, French, Spanish or German, and reporting observations made
in Africa, America, Europe and Asia. A substantial part of the
second volume reproduces issues 14 and 15 (1970) of the _Revue de
Phonetique Appliquee_, which are entirely devoted to the whistled
speech of Kuskoy (Turkey):

SEBEOK, T. and UMIKER-SEBEOK, D.J. (eds.) 1976. _Speech Surrogates:
Drum and Whistle Systems_, The Hague, Paris: Mouton, (2 vol.).

Other references include:

COWAN, C. 1971. ''Segmental Features of Tepehua Whistle Speech,
_Proceedings of the Int. Cong. of Phonetic Sciences_, Montreal.

LIVBJERG, I. 1985. (paper in Danish; details available from its
author at Livbjerg/

BAGEMIHL, B. 1988. ''Alternate Phonologies and Morphologies'', Ph. D.
dissertation, U. of British Columbia, Canada

+ several entries mentioned in Busnel and Classe's bibliography and
referring to anecdotal anthropological views published in the late
19th century.

+ a documentary which was shown on PBS's ''3-2-1 Contact'' science
show. Details anyone?

>From the above texts and from your answers, I was able to make the
following rudimentary notes, which some of you might find useful or
just interesting.

- Essentially, to allow shepherds to communicate across narrow
valleys when ordinary language would be inadequate. Distances,
normally 1-2 km, can reach 5 km or more.
- It is also used in Africa and Nepal for communication during a
- It may be used for secrecy, but not for games.

- Mexico: Mazatec, Tepehua, Nahua, Otomi, Totonac, Kickapoo,
Chinantec, Zapotec, Amuzgo, Chol.
- Bolivia: Siriono
- France (village of Aas, French Pyrenees): Spanish
- Spain (Canary Islands): Gomero Spanish (''el silbo'')
- Turkey: Kuskoy
- West Africa: Ewe, Tshi, Marka, Ule, Daguri, Birifor, Burunsi,
Bobo, Bafia, Bape.
- Nepal: Chepang
- Burma: Chin
- New Guinea: Gasup, Binumarien

- Whistled languages are usually found in areas of low population
density and difficult terrain. They are not linked with any
particular linguistic group or language type.

- Only males in Mexico and Africa. Both sexes in Europe. Children
are initiated early where whistling is used on a normal basis.

- Whistled language has a remote, possibly pre-historic, origin; it
is first mentioned in the literature in the 17th century
- It is extinct in Aas; in decline elsewhere, mainly because of the
availability of telephones and other means of modern communication
- Apparently, ''el silbo'' is still taught in a Gomera school in the
small village of Chipude, by Isidro Ortiz (tel.: 801013)

- Apart from the African cases where a whistle (the tool) is used,
communication consists of whistled realizations of the local
- Pitch variation are produced by the tongue, with its tip pressed
against the teeth, and with the lips immobilized in a rounded or
spread position (use of fingers is optional)
- Each phoneme has a whistled equivalent. Given the loss of jaw and
lip movement by comparison with ordinary speech, phonetic
distinctions are harder to produce. Hence a strong reliance on
repetition and context, and a preference for phonemically-simple
languages and for the communication of short, simple, routine
* Vowel aperture is replaced by a set of more or less stable
pitch ranges (only relative - not absolute - Fo matters). In
general, vowels are not clearly distinguished.
* Consonants are produced by pitch transitions between vowels.
Transition length and height, plus the presence/absence of
occlusion, are used for differentiation purposes. Labial stops are
replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.
- Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
- Intonation exists, but conflicts with segmental pitch changes.
Hence, for instance, a preference for lexical over tonal questions.


- Apparently, a different pitch range can point to a different
- The sex of a whistler can usually be identified, but of course
less surely than with regular speech
- In tone languages, such as Mazatec and Tepehua mentioned above,
some sacrifice of articulation is necessary to preserve tone
patterns. This may explain why whistling is used at closer range in
these cases.

LA GOMERA ANECDOTES [Thanks to K. Beesley and M. Kuha]

- Reportedly, some of the commonly used silbo introductions have
been picked up and repeated by birds.

- ''My brother was once hiking around Gomera with a friend. They ran
out of drinking water and asked a local person for some. This
person said she didn't have any (it was a very dry area!) but her
neighbor up the mountain could help. ''I'll let her know you're
coming'' she said, and whistled up the mountain. They walked up the
mountain. My brother walked ahead and arrived first. When he got to
the house, a stranger sitting there said: ''Ah, there you are. The
water's right around the corner there; but where is your friend?''
- ----------------------------------------------------------------------
LINGUIST List: Vol-6-1319.

In article , Colin Fine
> In article , Leland Bryant Ross
Yes, this is true. Mazatec relies so heavily on the tone of the
>syllables that conversations can be carried on through whistling.
We personally have only seen it used in common phrases such as ''Where
are you going?'' or ''What are you doing?'' or ''Come here'' as a few
examples. However, in a closely related dialect of Mazatec, linguists working
there have documented long and detailed conversations carried on entirely
by whistles. The whistles carry over longer distances than spoken words, so
whistle speech is often used in the fields or from one mountain top to
another. For more information on this you can read the article - Mazatec
Whistle Speech. Language 24.280-286. Reprinted in 1964 Languages in
culture and society, ed. by Dell H. Hymes, 312-329. New York: Harper & Row.
Peggy Agee

>Thanks, Peggy! So anyway, anybody *really* know whether similar
>phenomena really occur in *African* tonal languages?

> I believe the whistled speech of the Canary Islands is believed to be
> based on ... Spanish! (and not the Berber language spoken there
- ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Colin Fine 66 High Ash, Shipley, W Yorks. BD18 1NE, UK
Tel: 01274 592696/0976 436109 e-mail:


REPLY #3 from Andy Arelo (aarleo@club-internet)

France Cloarec-Heiss, Langue naturelle, langage tambourin?: un encodage
?conomique (banda-linda de Centrafrique), in Catherine Fuchs and
St?phante Robert (eds.) Diversit? des langues et repr?sentations
cognitives, Paris: Editions Ophrys 1997, pp. 136-149.


REPLY #4, from Andrei Popescu-Belis
[This appears to be an English version of article mentioned in REPLY #3]

CLOAREC-HEISS, France. From Natural Language to Drum Language: An
Economical Encoding Procedure in Banda-linda (Central African
Republic). in Fuchs, Catherine et Robert, Stephane, Language
Diversity and Cognitive Representations. Amsterdam : John
Benjamins, p. 145-157.


REPLY #5 from Nigel Fabb (

If you don't know it already, you might look at Akin Euba (1990) Yoruba
Drumming: the dundun tradition, a 550pp. book published by Eckhard
Breitinger, Bayreuth University; isbn 3-927510-11-4. Lots of
transcription, discussion, relating speech and drumming, and a biggish

You may also know the Smithsonian Folkways CD SF 40440 'Yoruba drums
West Africa'; terrific recordings and an excellent booklet though not
about speech.



Aniruddh D. Patel
The Neurosciences Institute
10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive
San Diego, CA 92121

Tel 858-626-2085
Fax 858-626-2099

LL Issue: 12.419
Date Posted: 15-Feb-2001
Original Query: Read original query


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