Category Archives: linguistics

Whistled Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The line between speaking and singing is often blurred. In the Hebrew Bible, poetry and song are both called shir, suggesting that poetry was performed in speech-song. A similar simultaneity of song and poetry is present in human cultures across time and geography. Part of this owes to the shared mechanism of sound production: the human voice. It is commonly observed that infants “sing” before they speak. Expressive speech has qualities homologous with sprechstimme. Intense emotions are vocalized in shouts and groans verging on the musical. Even ordinary verbal communication lends itself to musical notation.

This points to a basic principle: Where there is speech, there is song. William A. Aikin touched on this in his article on singing in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1939): “It is part of our natural condition to possess organs for the production of sound, and perceptions to make them musical, and, being thus equipped, it is but natural that the art of music should be intimately associated with human life.” Because the impulse to communicate manifests in both speech and song, there is a natural spillover: speech tends toward song and song is shaped by speech.

Intonation variation is used in every language to mark emphases, differences, and emotional color. There are also many tonal languages, which utilize contrasting tones—rises and falls in pitch—to distinguish words and their grammatical functions. Roughly seventy percent of languages are tonal, accounting for about a third of the world’s human population. They are most prevalent in Central America, Africa, and East Asia. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, has four distinct tones: flat, rising, falling, and falling then rising.

A few tonal languages take speech-song a step further. They feature a whistling counterpart, or a whistled mode of speech. These melodic dialects are based on the spoken language: words are simplified and represented, syllable-by-syllable, contour-by-contour, through whistled tunes. Such communication is typically a musical-linguistic adaption to mountainous or heavily forested areas where daily work is performed in relative isolation. The whistles carry over great distances and can be heard over environmental noises. The practice is found in remote towns and villages in various parts of the globe, including Turkey, France, Mexico, Nepal, New Guinea, and the Canary Islands.

The instinctive and effective translation of spoken words into whistled melodies highlights the bond between speech and song. There is a modicum of musicality in English and other non-tonal languages. Tonal languages display more explicit musical aspects. Whistled languages make music the audible center. Yet, for all their diversity, the relationship of all the world’s languages to song is a difference of degree more than of kind.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Musical Ambiguity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The dictionary defines its subject matter, words, as distinct meaningful elements of writing or speech. This could imply that a single word—isolated from a linguistic or real-life setting—maintains a rigid meaning. However, all but the most technical dictionary terms show that, while a word may exist as a “distinct meaningful element,” precisely what that meaning is depends on how, when, and where the word is used. The further removed it is from a relationship with other words, the less confidently it possesses monosemy, or a single basic meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary abundantly demonstrates this point, providing 464 definitions for “set,” 396 for “run,” 368 for “take,” 343 for “stand,” and so on.

The presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word, known as lexical ambiguity or homonymy, is a natural and widespread aspect of language. Perhaps the most instructive (and amusing) examples are auto-antonyms: words that contain opposite meanings. “Custom,” for instance, means both standard and one-of-a-kind. “Cleaving” means both clinging and splitting apart. “Sanction” means both permit and punish. Related to these are words whose meanings have changed over time, like “awful,” which used to mean awe-inspiring, and “resentment,” which used to mean gratitude. Merriam-Webster recently authorized the colloquial (mis)use of “literally” by listing “figuratively” among its possible meanings (much to the chagrin of grammar-snobs).

All of this points to what linguist Alan Cruse calls the “contextual variability of word meaning.” Words in cooperation with their surroundings receive a particular meaning at a particular time. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in music.

A single note sounded in seclusion has virtually no signification. It can have an abundance of qualities—pitch, color, dynamic, vibrato (or lack thereof), etc.—but these are too neutral to impart a meaning. Whereas a multivalent term like “set” has intrinsic possibilities in the hundreds, the potential meaning of a single note is almost entirely extrinsic. It is a tabula rasa awaiting the impress of simultaneous pitches (harmony) and/or a succession of pitches (melody).

To some extent, this puts language and music in alignment. Both words and notes receive meaning from the rules of usage. In different types of sentences, words are used differently and carry different senses. In different types of musical phrases, notes are used differently and give different impressions. Both instances require a level of fluency to detect the intended syntactical meaning. Yet, while this tends to shape words into a clear and generally understood message, musical communication retains a certain vagueness. This is not just because music affects people in varying ways, even within a fluency group—something that can also occur with language. What is key is that music, unlike language, has no concrete or factual reference point. “Bank” takes on a direct meaning from its context; a musical note does not. True, music’s abstractness can be restrained by sonic and social contexts; but its implications remain variable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art Everywhere

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some assert that it is a fallacy to compare cultural elements cross-culturally. Sometimes called the “incommensurability thesis,” this position posits that because objects, concepts and behaviors tend to have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Variety negates universality. Basically a version of cultural relativism, this attitude emanates from three circles (or, rather, minorities within three circles): philosophers who attack commonalities in human experience; critics who over-emphasize outlier phenomena in order to challenge conventional assumptions; and ethnographers who argue for the absolute uniqueness of the populations they study, in part to elevate their own stature as privileged experts. Yet, just because human activities take heterogeneous forms does not eliminate the possibility of shared motivations.

Steven Pinker argues this point as it relates to the human capacity for language. He concludes in The Language Instinct: “Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even if I cannot understand a word.” This observation seems indisputable: language is a biological characteristic of the human species.

Philosopher of art Denis Dutton expands on Pinker’s claim in The Art Instinct. He asks: “Is it also true that, even though we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures, still, beneath the vast surface variety, all human beings have essentially the same art?” Dutton contends that, like language, artistic behaviors have spontaneously appeared throughout recorded human history. Almost always, observers across cultures recognize these behaviors as artistic, and there is enough commonality between them that they can be placed within tidy categories: painting, jewelry, dance, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, etc. To Dutton, this suggests that the arts, again like language, possess a general omnipresent structure beneath the varied grammar and vocabulary.

It should be noted that Pinker himself has elsewhere challenged this assumption. Most famously, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” or a non-adaptive by-product (of language, pattern recognition, emotional calls, etc.) that serves no fundamental role in human evolution. It is not my intention here to place that hypothesis under a microscope or investigate the many arguments against it. (Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities.) Wherever the evolutionary debates travel and whatever clues or counter-clues they accumulate, one thing is convincing: art appears rooted in universal human psychology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

The Role of the Listener

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.

This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.

Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”

The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.

The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Pots and Pans

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When Ulysses S. Grant was asked what music he liked, he replied: “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’—and the other isn’t.” At first reading, this seems like a snarky pronouncement of musical stubbornness. Perhaps Grant considered “Yankee Doodle” the apex of musical achievement, and nothing else deserved mention alongside it. This attitude is not uncommon. It is human nature to put certain music on a pedestal and confidently assert that it is better than the rest (though our “pedestal music” is usually more sophisticated than a patriotic ditty). But that was not the meaning of Grant’s remark. His words were much more cynical—and much more literal.

From an early age, the great general (and not-so-great president) professed an intense dislike for music. He was extremely tone deaf: he could not hum, recognize or remember even the most popular airs of his day. Perhaps his inability to retain or reproduce music was so frustrating that it spilled over into animosity. Or maybe music truly sounded awful to his ears. Whatever the reason, his was an almost pathological aversion to musical sounds. He never went to concerts, refused to dance and had a particular (and ironic) hatred for military bands.

Grant most likely suffered from congenital amusia, an anomaly that begins at birth and affects roughly four percent of the population. (There is also acquired amusia, which occurs as a result of brain damage.)  The primary symptom is a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination. Amusics cannot detect pitch changes when the distance between two successive pitches is small, and thus cannot internalize musical scales. This impairs the person’s ability to enjoy or respond to melodies, most of which consist of slight interval changes.

However, while amusics typically cannot distinguish one musical selection from the next, they often do recognize a single piece, usually one that involves strong rhythms and some sort of fanfare. Many patriotic songs fit this description, with their accompanying parades, flag waving and ritualized gestures. That would explain how Grant could identify “Yankee Doodle” and nothing else.

Music can also be a severe annoyance for some amusics. Their problem is not just a failure of recognition. Music as they hear it is comparable to the banging of pots and pans or some other cacophonous irritant. This also seems to describe Grant’s condition.

Nevertheless, Grant was sensitive to how the majority responds to music, even as he could not comprehend their enjoyment. After graduating from West Point, he was assigned to duty with the Fourth U. S. Infantry. In those days, regimental bands were paid partly by the government and partly by regimental funds, which were set aside for luxuries such as books, magazines and music. Grant accumulated money for the fund by ordering the Infantry’s daily rations in flour instead of bread (at a significant savings), renting a bakery, hiring bakers and selling fresh bread through a contract he arranged with the army’s chief commissary. Much of the extra income went to secure a bandleader and competent players, whose music boosted the soldiers’ morale (and punished Grant’s ears).

Grant’s neurological wiring prevented him from being a music lover. In fact, it made him a music hater. He did not process music as music, and could not feel it as most of us do. Yet he was perceptive enough to observe the musical pleasures of others, and gentleman enough to give fellow soldiers the music they yearned for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Listening to Ourselves

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Linguist Dwight L. Bolinger (1907-1992) included this observation in his classic book, The Symbolism of Music: “Repetition, or return to the familiar, to the learned, is more striking in music than elsewhere—a very good book may be read twice, a masterpiece of literature three or four times, a poem a dozen times; but in no other art-form could we expect the literally hundreds of repetitions to go on pleasing us.” Three things are especially striking about this statement. First is that it came from a professor of Romance languages—a man whose passion for linguistic form, function and meaning far surpassed the norm. Despite his personal and professional proclivities, Bolinger acknowledged the superiority of music in the crucial area of pleasure-making. Second, the type of music he refers to is the “favorite”: a song or piece that a person elevates above others and has a special attachment to. Third, Bolinger alludes to the essential contribution of musical favorites to the human experience. Favorites are valuable to us precisely because they are a reliable and potentially endless source of satisfaction.

It seems a human instinct to isolate, accumulate and curate a personal pantheon of greatest hits. The content of these customized collections is informed by interwoven forces, such as cultural conditioning, personality type, life experience, peer group, social station, education, exposure and heritage. Virtually everyone gravitates toward and snatches up favorites that (almost) never grow dull and often become more fulfilling with the passage of time. Counter to rational expectation and contrary to our relationship with literary works, musical favorites are heard (or performed) on countless occasions without the decrease in interest normally associated with repetition.

What accounts for this persistent gratification? The answer boils down to a simple proposition: when we listen to our favorites we are listening to ourselves. To understand this, it is best to think of music extra-musically—that is, in terms of what it does and stands for. Although certain and varied musical qualities make a piece attractive to certain and varied people, it is mainly what the music connotes that will make it a favorite.

Familiar music is a storehouse of personal information. It brings us into instant and powerful contact with emotional memories, nostalgic feelings, significant events, past and present relationships, group affiliations, intellectual leanings and other vivid reminders of who we are. To use an analogy from the computer age, musical favorites are data storage devices. They are a repository of cognitive and sentimental associations that flash into consciousness each time we hear them. They are, in short, externalized portals to our inner selves. And since identity and meaning derive largely from the data housed in this music, its repetition is a kind of self-reinforcement.

Among other things, this discussion helps us understand the affinity for recurring prayer-songs in worship services. Few ritual changes stir as much controversy as the introduction of new melodies. Musical innovations in church and synagogue have long encountered fervent objections from the people in the pews. This is conventionally attributed to factors like the religious impulse for preservation, the comfort of routine and the perceived holiness of long-established tunes. These are certainly important forces. However, if we apply the above analysis to the worship setting, we begin to appreciate that replacing cherished melodies with unfamiliar settings is, for many people, tantamount to an identity crisis. For this reason in particular, it must be handled with care.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.