LINGUIST List 12.419

Thu Feb 15 2001

Sum: Talking Drums & Whistled Speech

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. 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.

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
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.
- 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 
<> 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
- ---------------------------------------------------------------------
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

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
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