Amazonian Bora drummed language exploits speech rhythm for long-distance communication

Many drum communication systems around the world transmit information by emulating tonal and rhythmic patterns of spoken languages in sequences of drumbeats. Their rhythmic characteristics, in particular, have not been systematically studied so far, although understanding them represents a rare occasion for providing an original insight into the basic units of speech rhythm as selected by natural speech practices directly based on beats. Here, we analyse a corpus of Bora drum communication from the northwest Amazon, which is nowadays endangered with extinction. We show that four rhythmic units are encoded in the length of pauses between beats. We argue that these units correspond to vowel-to-vowel intervals with different numbers of consonants and vowel lengths. By contrast, aligning beats with syllables, mora or only vowel length yields inconsistent results. Moreover, we also show that Bora drummed messages conventionally select rhythmically distinct markers to further distinguish words. The two phonological tones represented in drummed speech encode only few lexical contrasts. Rhythm thus appears to crucially contribute to the intelligibility of drummed Bora. Our study provides novel evidence for the role of rhythmic structures composed of vowel-to-vowel intervals in the complex puzzle concerning the redundancy and distinctiveness of acoustic features embedded in speech. Read more

If you listen closely, the drumbeats of Amazonian tribes sound like human speech. Now the first in-depth study of how the drummers do it: Tiny variations in the time between beats match how words in the spoken language are vocalized. Read more: https://scim.ag/2I0Vpck

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