Laura McPherson Awarded National Science Foundation Career Grant

Professor Laura McPherson has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant. Her project is titled "Phonetic and Phonological Structure in Musical Surrogate Languages." During this five-and-a-half year grant, Prof. McPherson and her team will conduct field research in multiple sites: Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burkina Faso. 
Grant Title: Phonetic and Phonological Structure in Musical Surrogate Languages
Language and music are both inherently human systems of expression. At the intersection of the two, we find "musical surrogate languages" - the encoding of speech onto musical instruments such as xylophone, flutes, or drums (often referred to as "talking drums"). Found all over the world, these surrogate systems allow people to communicate without ever opening their mouths by transposing linguistic elements like pitch or speech rhythm onto the notes and rhythms of a musical instrument. Very little is known about the rules of how language is mapped to music in this way, how much these rules vary by language, instrument, or tradition, or how people can comprehend this musical code. Answering these questions stands to shed light on the nuances of languages' sound structures, which elements are most salient and accessible to speakers and musicians, and the immense overlap in the organization and processing of language and music. With the majority of musical surrogate languages critically endangered, time is of the essence to capture these unique traditions that push the boundaries of human communication. 

This project represents the first comparative study of musical surrogate languages grounded in detailed phonetic and phonological documentation of the spoken languages on which they are based. Over five years, it will target several surrogate systems on different instruments and in different language groups, gathering experimental data to determine the rules of surrogate encoding while building a multi-use archive of high-quality audiovisual materials. A streamlined methodology will be developed, including automated recording and transcription systems and a standardized annotation format that can be integrated with best practice tools for linguistic transcription. This methodology will be disseminated to students and other scholars to build a community of researchers who can help tackle the enormous task of documenting the world's surrogate languages. Resulting analyses will contribute to the development of a typology of surrogate speech, which can be used to identify correlations between linguistic features, musical constraints, and social uses.