the moon looks down at the earth

Since the late nineteenth century, linguists have identified the phoneme as the smallest acoustic unit that makes a difference in meaning. The English word chuck comprises three phonemes: different meanings can be created by changing ch to d, or u to e, or ck to m. It is a useful concept but an imperfect one: linguists have found it surprisingly difficult to agree on an exact inventory of phonemes for English or any other language (most estimates for English are in the vicinity of forty-five). The problem is that a stream of speech is a continuum; a linguist may abstractly, and arbitrarily, break it into discrete units, but the meaningfulness of these units varies from speaker to speaker and depends on the context. Most speakers’ instincts about phonemes are biased, too, by their knowledge of the written alphabet, which codifies language in its own sometimes arbitrary ways. In any case, tonal languages, with their extra variable, contain many more phonemes than were first apparent to inexperienced linguists.

As the spoken languages of Africa elevated tonality to a crucial role, the drum language went a difficult step further. It employed tone and only tone. It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language composed entirely of pitch contours. The drums varied in materials and craft. Some were slit gongs, tubes of padauk wood, hollow, cut with a long and narrow mouth to make a high-sounding lip and a low-sounding lip; others had skin tops, and these were used in pairs. All that mattered was for the drums to sound two distinct notes, at an interval of about a major third.

So in mapping the spoken language to the drum language, information was lost. The drum talk was speech with a deficit. For every village and every tribe, the drum language began with the spoken word and shed the consonants and vowels. That was a lot to lose. The remaining information stream would be riddled with ambiguity. A double stroke on the high-tone lip of the drum [– –] matched the tonal pattern of the Kele word for father, sango, but naturally it could just as well be songe, the moon; koko, fowl; fele, a species of fish; or any other word of two high tones. Even the limited dictionary of the missionaries at Yakusu contained 130 such words. Having reduced spoken words, in all their sonic richness, to such a minimal code, how could the drums distinguish them? The answer lay partly in stress and timing, but these could not compensate for the lack of consonants and vowels. Thus… a drummer would invariably add “a little phrase” to each short word. Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga — “the moon looks down at the earth”. Koko, the fowl, is rendered koko olongo la bokiokio — “the fowl, the little one that says kiokio”. The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate. This takes place below the level of consciousness. Listeners are hearing only staccato drum tones, low and high, but in effect they “hear” the missing consonants and vowels, too. For that matter, they hear whole phrases, not individual words.

The stereotyped long tails flap along, their redundancy overcoming ambiguity. The drum language is creative, freely generating neologisms for innovations from the north… But drummers begin by learning the traditional fixed formulas. Indeed, the formulas of the African drummers sometimes preserve archaic words that have been forgotten in the everyday language. For the Yaunde, the elephant is always “the great awkward one”. The resemblance to Homeric formulas — not merely Zeus, but Zeus the cloud-gatherer; not just the sea, but the wine-dark sea — is no accident. In an oral culture, inspiration has to serve clarity and memory first. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne.

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