Musical surrogate languages in the documentation of complex tone: the case of the Sambla balafon

Laura McPherson


In documenting an undescribed language, tone can pose a significant challenge. In practically no other aspect of the phonology can such a small set of categories show such an overlapping range of pronunciation, especially in level-tone languages where f0 slope offers fewer clues to category. This paper demonstrates the unexpected tool offered by musical surrogate languages in the documentation of these tone systems. It draws on the case study of the Sambla balafon, a resonator xylophone played by many ethnicities in Burkina Faso and neighboring West African countries. The language of the Sambla people, Seenku (Northwestern Mande, Samogo), has a highly complex tonal system, whose four contrastive levels and multiple contour tones are encoded musically in the notes of the balafon, allowing musicians to communicate with each other and with spectators without ever opening their mouths. I show how the balafon data have shed light on a number of tonal contrasts and phenomena and raised questions about levels of the grammar and their mental representations.


 DOI: 10.21437/TAL.2018-13

Cite as: McPherson, L. (2018) Musical surrogate languages in the documentation of complex tone: the case of the Sambla balafon. Proc. TAL2018, Sixth International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages, 62-66, DOI: 10.21437/TAL.2018-13.


@inproceedings{McPherson2018,
  author={ Laura McPherson},
  title={ Musical surrogate languages in the documentation of complex tone: the case of the Sambla balafon},
  year=2018,
  booktitle={Proc. TAL2018, Sixth International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages},
  pages={62--66},
  doi={10.21437/TAL.2018-13},
  url={http://dx.doi.org/10.21437/TAL.2018-13}
}