Music or message or both?

I need to give an example of inflected speech, so let’s listen to a teenage girl.

“Hi, I’m Katie.”

That’s how we write it, but it isn’t how she says it. She says,

“Hi, I’m Katie?”

If you listen carefully to the speech of teenaged girls you will find that they often end declarative sentences with a slight rise in pitch, an inflection, that in many languages, such as English, indicates that what is being said is a question. (It’s almost as if young girls who do this are humbly asking permission to speak.)

Anyway, that’s an example of inflection. Inflection occurs rather infrequently in English, but in some languages, including some major ones such as Mandarin, inflections are scattered all over the place including inside words. Words with the same syllables arranged in the same order can mean very different things depending on the pattern of inflection that comes packaged with the word.

In the Kele language spoken in parts of Africa, the word we would write as lisaka can mean “puddle,” “promise,” or “poison” depending on the pattern of inflection. Liala can mean “fiancee” or “rubbish pit” depending on whether the “a” sound in the middle is inflected with a rise in pitch. (I am taking these examples and what follows about drum languages from James Gleick’s splendid book The Information, which is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in some time.)

When Europeans started poking around in sub-Saharan Africa, they noticed that the people living there would stop and listen carefully whenever they heard distant drums. Eventually, and it took a while, the Europeans realized that the drumming was a communication system. Not only that, but it was one that could (a) send a message through relays of drummers a hundred miles in an hour or so and (b) could carry messages such as:

“In the morning at dawn, we do not want gatherings for work, we want a meeting of play on the river. Men who live in Bolenge, do not go to the forest, do not go fishing. We want a meeting of play on the river, in the morning at dawn.”

Long-distance relay messaging systems the Europeans had at the time couldn’t handle anything much more complicated than “one if by land and two if by sea” or “Troy is fallen if you see a fire on mount such-and-such.”

Here’s the kicker: the drums worked on a binary code that listeners could process on the fly. Very impressive.

The drummers had two sounds at their disposal. They mapped the inflection pattern of their spoken language, the inflected and not-inflected parts of words, onto the two sounds the drummers could produce. Because some words would have the same inflection pattern, the drummers had to build a lot of redundancy into their messages to prevent confusion. But it worked.

The Voyager spacecraft that are now finally leaving the solar system carry Golden Records that include samples of music from many human cultures. If anybody ever finds them, I suspect they will try to interpret Glenn Gould playing The Well-Tempered Clavier as a language. Maybe it is. After all, he did sing and hum along with his playing.


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