The always impressive Freeman Dyson has a long and thoughtful NYRB review of James Gleick’s new book The Information, from which I excerpt the beginning:

James Gleick’s first chapter has the title “Drums That Talk.” It explains the concept of information by looking at a simple example. The example is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the human language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them.

Sadly, the drum language was only understood and recorded by a single European before it started to disappear. The European was John Carrington, an English missionary who spent his life in Africa and became fluent in both Kele and drum language. He arrived in Africa in 1938 and published his findings in 1949 in a book, The Talking Drums of Africa [London: Carey Ringsgate, 1949]. Before the arrival of the Europeans with their roads and radios, the Kele-speaking Africans had used the drum language for rapid communication from village to village in the rain forest. Every village had an expert drummer and every villager could understand what the drums were saying. By the time Carrington wrote his book, the use of drum language was already fading and schoolchildren were no longer learning it. In the sixty years since then, telephones made drum language obsolete and completed the process of extinction.
Carrington understood how the structure of the Kele language made drum language possible. Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. The fraction of information that survives in a drum word is small, and the words spoken by the drums are correspondingly ambiguous. A single sequence of tones may have hundreds of meanings depending on the missing vowels and consonants. The drum language must resolve the ambiguity of the individual words by adding more words. When enough redundant words are added, the meaning of the message becomes unique.

Kele is a single language according to the bare-bones Wikipedia entry, a family of languages according to Ethnologue. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I can’t resist recalling the old joke:
    European: Those drums–do they mean danger?
    African guide: No, but when drums stop, very bad.
    European; What happens then?
    Guide: Bass solo.

  2. I’d guess there was a little bit more to it than is in the description. I would imagine that only a small subset of words in the language were used in drum messages, and that there were a lot of stereotyped patterns that people learned from childhood.
    It would be analogous to how we learn a language containing expressions like IMHO, YMMV, ROTFL, etc., but quite a bit more complicated.

  3. I would imagine that only a small subset of words in the language were used in drum messages
    Apparently it’s the reverse—they had to use a lot of synonyms to make sure the idea got across.

  4. There are actually lots of different ways of drumming languages. The Fulani in Northern Nigeria speak a non-tonal language, so when they want to produce drum speech they use Nigerian pidjin English. Nigerian Radio used to have a sign-on call that consisted of a Yoruba ‘gangan’ talking drum saying – in English – “This is the Nigerian Broadcasting System.”
    We discussed drum language a lot when I studied Yoruba, which has three main tones and tonal glides. Since “cultured” Yoruba would all understand drummed language, drummers had a special way of drumming that formed a secret language of drummers, called “ena.” Drummers use ena to joke among themselves while performing, or to conduct changes in the performance. Ena basically consisted of “stuttering” by doubling and trippling drum strokes to throw off the comprehension of the non-drummers listening. It also was said to reflect the speech impediment of Shango, the King of Oyo who was said to have stuttered.
    The Kele drumming uses a lot of repetitive phrases to make sure the point gets across. Yoruba drumming is more like an alternative to written literacy. In the schools where “ifa” divination is taught, pupils learn the 600 odd divination poems (odu ifa) by rote, while drummers stand beside them simultaneously drumming the poem,literally beating the text into their memory.

  5. Indeed. It is not so much repetition of synonyms as stock phrases standing for simpler terms.
    Carrington’s monograph (I have not seen Gleick’s book) gives examples, such as, songe li tange la manga ‘the moon looks down to the earth’, for songe ‘moon’. And similarly, bosongo olimo ko nda lokonda ‘red as copper, spirit from the forest’ for ‘white man’, in his tale of his arrival being reannounced.
    This same high-low scheme can be used with shouting: high ki (or li or ti) versus low (or or ). So that same moon phrase is given as kiti kɛtikɛlɛ kɛtɛ. (Some early reporters were confused because the drum language was explained to them in terms of these shouted words.) Or whistling.
    The Lokele talking drums are not, properly speaking, drums (membranophones), but [slit-]gongs (idiophones). Carrington is not confused on this score: he notes the difference in a footnote near the front, but just chose the simpler term for a popular work. There are other communities that use skin drums.
    Carrington wasn’t really the only one who worked out what was going on. There are earlier specific studies in his bibliography.

  6. My first linguistics class (about 1981?) was taught by the late Alexandre Kimenyi, a native of Rwanda, who regularly used his native Kinyarwanda as a model for his classes. According to him, drum language was intelligible to native speakers without training. I don’t remember that he explained how to get past the ambiguity, though.

  7. R. S. Rattray and an elderly Ashanti Omanhene, Osai Kojo, recorded cylinder phonographs of a Drum History of Mampon. I wonder whether anyone has made them into MP3s?

  8. Speech Surrogates : Drum and Whistle Systems reproduces a mess of papers from before 1975. It does not seem to be available in the book market, but is in several university libraries here and so I imagine elsewhere.
    It has Carrington’s complete monograph and his earlier, shorter but more detailed, paper. And Betz’s “Die Trommelsprache der Duala”, from a journal that does not seem to have been scanned by anyone. And a little note by Ulli Beier, “The Talking Drums of the Yoruba”, from the premier issue of African Music Journal. That last concerns the dundun, bigger than the gangan that zaelic mentioned (and that most of us that collect percussion have, even if making no claims to be able to play it well).

  9. I remember Gleick’s Chaos and Genius with pleasure, but I’m afraid Dyson impresses me most in the way he has so thoroughly jumped the shark into a cloud-cuckoo land of techno-utopiainism.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones.

    That, plus vowel length, is how the whistled version of Pirahã works.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Or did I invent the vowel length? I probably did. It’s half past 2 at night. Grmpf.

  12. As I understand it, it’s the syllable length (or weight) that corresponds to the high / low note’s duration, with CVV > GVV > VV > CV > GV (G = voiced consonant). Vowel length isn’t a segmental feature.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Huh. Interesting.

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