Research Topic

Surrogate Languages and the Grammar of Language-Based Music

About this Research Topic

Traditional usages of musical instruments as speech surrogates have been documented for centuries. This common practice is just one example of the tight connection between language and music. More generally, musical practices across cultures often rely on linguistic structures, demonstrating a closer contact between language and music than is familiar in most Western traditions. It is only recently that linguists have started to uncover the relevance of surrogate languages and language-based music to linguistic theory. While available data are still scarce, it has become clear that analyzing traditional speech surrogates and language-based music has exciting implications for all areas of linguistics. This enterprise promises to enhance our understanding of both musical and linguistic faculties in humans. As many language-based musical traditions are endangered, it has become urgent that linguists study the ways in which grammatical information is encoded in musical modalities.

Questions about musical vehicles of languages appear at all levels of linguistic description and analysis. Phonologically, it is important to analyze how parameters like tone, vowel height, or syllable structure are represented in speech surrogates, and whether properties of the musical instrument have any effect on that representation. Morphologically, we need to understand whether lexical units are represented on instruments independently, or partially independently, of their phonetic and phonological properties in speech. Syntactically, it should be clarified to what extent musical expression of language can show grammatical properties that are not manifested in the linguistic grammar, and to what extent grammatical operations may be simplified when they are conveyed musically. Semantically, we are interested in the way in which the content of language-based music is formally distinguished from those of spoken language. Other, more specific questions, concern the possible structural distinctions between whistling and speech surrogacy on musical instruments, the distinctions between language-based musics with tonal and atonal languages, productivity of language encoding in music, and comprehensibility of speech surrogacy among native speakers (practitioners and non-practitioners). We also welcome contributions comparing musical surrogate languages to other kinds of language-based music.

This Research Topic welcomes contributions on any of these aspects and related ones. Contributions from field linguistics, theoretical linguists and musicology are equally encouraged, especially ones that deal with structural aspects of speech surrogacy and language-based music. Contributions may be Original Research, Review, Perspective, Data Report or Brief Research Report.


Keywords: linguistic theory, musicology, speech surrogate, drum languages, language-music connection


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Traditional usages of musical instruments as speech surrogates have been documented for centuries. This common practice is just one example of the tight connection between language and music. More generally, musical practices across cultures often rely on linguistic structures, demonstrating a closer contact between language and music than is familiar in most Western traditions. It is only recently that linguists have started to uncover the relevance of surrogate languages and language-based music to linguistic theory. While available data are still scarce, it has become clear that analyzing traditional speech surrogates and language-based music has exciting implications for all areas of linguistics. This enterprise promises to enhance our understanding of both musical and linguistic faculties in humans. As many language-based musical traditions are endangered, it has become urgent that linguists study the ways in which grammatical information is encoded in musical modalities.

Questions about musical vehicles of languages appear at all levels of linguistic description and analysis. Phonologically, it is important to analyze how parameters like tone, vowel height, or syllable structure are represented in speech surrogates, and whether properties of the musical instrument have any effect on that representation. Morphologically, we need to understand whether lexical units are represented on instruments independently, or partially independently, of their phonetic and phonological properties in speech. Syntactically, it should be clarified to what extent musical expression of language can show grammatical properties that are not manifested in the linguistic grammar, and to what extent grammatical operations may be simplified when they are conveyed musically. Semantically, we are interested in the way in which the content of language-based music is formally distinguished from those of spoken language. Other, more specific questions, concern the possible structural distinctions between whistling and speech surrogacy on musical instruments, the distinctions between language-based musics with tonal and atonal languages, productivity of language encoding in music, and comprehensibility of speech surrogacy among native speakers (practitioners and non-practitioners). We also welcome contributions comparing musical surrogate languages to other kinds of language-based music.

This Research Topic welcomes contributions on any of these aspects and related ones. Contributions from field linguistics, theoretical linguists and musicology are equally encouraged, especially ones that deal with structural aspects of speech surrogacy and language-based music. Contributions may be Original Research, Review, Perspective, Data Report or Brief Research Report.


Keywords: linguistic theory, musicology, speech surrogate, drum languages, language-music connection


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

13 January 2021 Manuscript
13 February 2021 Manuscript Extension

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

13 January 2021 Manuscript
13 February 2021 Manuscript Extension

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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