LINGUIST List 12.419

Thu Feb 15 2001

Sum: Talking Drums & Whistled Speech

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  • Aniruddh Patel, Talking Drums & Whistled Speech

    Message 1: Talking Drums & Whistled Speech

    Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 20:58:50 -0800
    From: Aniruddh Patel <>
    Subject: Talking Drums & Whistled Speech

    Dear Linguist List,

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

    Many thanks to all who replied.

    Regards, Ani Patel

    ************************************************************************************** ORIGINAL QUERY

    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?

    Regards, Ani Patel


    REPLY #1, from Kevin Johnson (


    Record 1 of 4

    TI: Title The Talking Drum: Moving toward a Psychology of Literacy Transformation 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 Gomero. LA: Language German

    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 Chpt in THEMES IN GREEK LINGUISTICS: PAPERS FROM THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON GREEK LINGUISTICS, READING, SEPTEMBER 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 English


    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: 171

    Subject: 6.1319, Sum: Whistled speech 1) Date: Mon, 25 Sep 1995 13:23:08 EST From: <> 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. WHY WHISTLE? - 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 hunt. - It may be used for secrecy, but not for games. WHICH LANGUAGES ARE ALSO WHISTLED AND WHERE? - 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. WHO? - Only males in Mexico and Africa. Both sexes in Europe. Children are initiated early where whistling is used on a normal basis. WHEN? - 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) HOW? - Apart from the African cases where a whistle (the tool) is used, communication consists of whistled realizations of the local language - 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 messages * 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. VARIA - Apparently, a different pitch range can point to a different dialect. - 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 <> writes: > In article <>, Leland Bryant Ross <> writes > 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 before). > - --------------------------------------------------------------------- Colin Fine 66 High Ash, Shipley, W Yorks. BD18 1NE, UK Tel: 01274 592696/0976 436109 e-mail:


    REPLY #3 from Andy Arelo (aarleoclub-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 bibliography.

    You may also know the Smithsonian Folkways CD SF 40440 'Yoruba drums from West Africa'; terrific recordings and an excellent booklet though not much 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 Email Website