Laura McPherson

The role of music in documenting phonological grammar: two case studies from West Africa

Laura McPherson (Dartmouth College)

A growing body of literature highlights the close parallels between language and music (see e.g. Patel 2008, Arbib 2013, etc.). Of particular relevance to phonology, the fundamental building blocks of both systems are largely the same: pitch, timbre, duration, rhythm. In “language-based music” (including sung music and musical surrogates), the mapping of language to music can shed light on the phonological grammar in a number of ways. This talk argues for the value of investigating traditional music in understudied languages as a means of deepening the understanding of the phonological grammar.

I draw on two case studies from my own fieldwork: tonal text-setting of sung folk music in Tommo So (Dogon, Mali) and musical surrogate languages in Seenku (Mande, Burkina Faso). First, McPherson and Ryan (2018) showed that musical melodies in Tommo So are loosely constrained by linguistic tone, with the grammar of text-setting based on the distinction between rising and non-rising tonal sequences. I revisit these results and argue that this binary distinction may have more linguistic basis than originally recognized, showing how music can continue to shed light on the phonological grammar, long after the original analysis of spoken data.

The case of musical surrogate languages in Seenku demonstrates the symbiotic nature of phonological description and musical analysis, focusing primarily on data from a xylophone surrogate languageWith segmental information stripped away, the mapping between tone and melody is necessarily much stricter than in sung music. The discrete rather than continuous notes of the xylophone amplify difficult to hear tonal contrasts, while the distinction between what is and is not encoded provides evidence for a layered morphophonological grammar. Beyond tone, the rhythmic encoding of the language provides evidence for an overarching system of phonological organization, while at the same time raising questions about the phonetics-phonology interface.

Slides for the talk can be found here.

Friday, October 5, 5:30-6:30pm
Salon A/B, Green Acre Campus Pointe (map)