Tag Archives: Non-Tonal Speech

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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